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I have a question about the difference between the verb "cover" and phrase "fill in" in couple of work-related contexts. The common feature of the two contexts is a store with two employees, John and Jane. On some days of the week, only John is on duty. On some other days of the week, only Jane is on duty. For all the other days of the week. Both John and Jane are on duty.

In one context, on Mondays Jane is normally on duty and John is normally off. Suppose for one particular Monday, Jane could not make it to work, so John had to come in:

1a. John covered for Jane on Monday.
1b. John filled in for Jane on Monday.

In another context, on Tuesdays both Jane and John are normally on duty. Suppose for one particular Tuesday, Jane could not make it to work, so John had to shoulder her workload for the day, in addition to his own workload:

2a. John covered for Jane on Tuesday.
2b. John filled in for Jane on Tuesday.

Is one of "cover" or "fill in" more appropriate in sentence pairs 1a-1b and 2a-2b?

  • When you are using it to talk about doing somebody else's job temporarily, I think that there is no widely understood difference in usage between the two words, in this context or any other. – JavaLatte Aug 27 '16 at 17:33
  • #2. I'd say "covered". John covered for Jane. Don't worry, he said, I can cover for you. Definitely not "fill in". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 27 '16 at 20:54
  • But I just asked someone who is in his twenties, and he said "cover for" can be used with any single ad hoc situation, whereas "fill in" is for a longer-term, ongoing basis. X filled in for Y when Y was on the team's disabled list for most of the season. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 27 '16 at 21:02
1

covered for

and

filled in for

in your example can have the same meaning.

In all four of your sentences, "covered" or "filled in" can be used interchangeably and would be understood in meaning. However,

John filled in for Jane on Monday.
John substituted for Jane on Monday

John covered for Jane on Tuesday.
John took on Jane's workload on Tuesday

are more descriptively exact.

Quite often one might hear a coworker say

I need to go to the bathroom, can you cover for me?
I need to step out, can you cover for me while I'm gone?

or a manager might say to his team

Jane is sick. You will all have to cover for her until we can get someone to fill in her slot.

Your use of cover should not be confused with

I'm going out tonight, can you cover for me in case my parents call?
Can you be my alibi if my parents call

which is similar to

Give us some cover (fire) while we storm the building!

both meaning "protection".

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Here is how I understand and use these terms.

To cover for someone: to assume someone else's responsibilities on a temporary basis, often while continuing to handle one's own.

To fill in for someone: to assume someone else's responsibilities or to be a substitute for someone.

The defensive back shifted a little to the left, to cover for his team mate who had fallen after being tripped up.

The sweeper was moved up to holding center position, to fill in for his injured team mate, who had been carried off the field on a stretcher.

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