Is the preposition used with substitute same / fixed in all sentences or it changes with meaning ? I tried to find my answer from google and found sentences mostly using for with substitute, on oxford dictionary website its mentioned that verb substitute is traditionally followed by for
so are there any exceptions to this rule ? I have confusion between to and for in the following sentence.

It is not a substitute ____ the formal criminal justice system, but a good backup to reduce its workload .

What should come in the blank ? Substitute for or substitute to ?

  • Substitute for is correct May 22, 2017 at 16:23
  • @SovereignSun Is it FOR just here or always ? can we use TO also ( depending on sentence ) ?
    – user212388
    May 22, 2017 at 16:26
  • 3
    as a substitute to (some "original") is relatively rare, but not unknown. By including traditionally, your dictionary source quite correctly avoids explicitly claiming that for is the ONLY preposition that can validly follow substitute. But for learners, that's probably all they need to know. May 22, 2017 at 16:56

3 Answers 3


"...substitute for the criminal justice system..." is correct in your example. You always substitute something for something else.

I can think of a situation in which you'd use "to" after "substitute":

I used a substitute to avoid going to the grocery store.

However, in that example you're just not saying the part where you've substituted something for something else, shortening the sentence. The "to" phrase isn't telling us what was substituted; it's just telling us why something was substituted. We can include it with the other part:

I used a substitute for the buttermilk to avoid going to the grocery store.


I used a substitute for the buttermilk in order to avoid going to the grocery store.

The "to" has nothing to do with "substitute", which pretty much always takes "for".

  • 1
    "Substitute" is also a noun (as in your first example). When used as a verb, I can't think of any preposition that follows substitute other than "for".
    – Andrew
    May 22, 2017 at 16:55
  • @Andrew True, that distinction hadn't even occurred to me. I could rewrite the buttermilk sentences using "substitute" as a verb and I think the point would stand. "I substituted to avoid going to the grocery store." A little clunky but technically correct, I think. May 22, 2017 at 17:09
  • I'm not certain if "substitute" can be used as an intransitive verb without some object at least implied. I think in your example the "to" is technically part of the adverbial phrase -- as you say, it has nothing to do with "substitute".
    – Andrew
    May 22, 2017 at 18:35

The word substitute can take both for and with, but the preposition changes the meaning. It does not generally take the preposition to.

Substitute X for Y
X is a substitute for Y

both mean that X (the first term) is replacing Y (the second term).


Substitute X with Y
X is substituted with Y

both mean that Y (the second term) is replacing X (the first term).

In your example, for is the appropriate preposition:

It is not a substitute for the formal criminal justice system, but a good backup to reduce its workload.

because you want to say that "It" (the first term) is [not] replacing "the formal criminal justice system" (the second term).

If you wanted to rephrase using with, you could say

The formal criminal justice system cannot be substituted with [the other system], but it is a good backup to reduce the justice system's workload.

Note that this distinction is subtle enough to trip up native speakers; it is safest to always use for, and make sure that the first term is meant to be replacing the second term.


It's generally a good idea to memorize English verb/preposition pairs rather than just verbs or just prepositions, since many verbs can change meaning with a different preposition. Consider "get on", "get over", "get back", "get up", and many others.

Usually you can find in the dictionary what prepositions go with each verb. This one is not complete, but might be a good place to start.

The preposition to pair with "substitute" (the verb) is "for". So, "substitute for the formal criminal justice system," is correct.

(Edit) "Substitute" can also take "with" as a preposition, which reverses the order of what is being substituted.

  • +1 for the idea that sometimes applying grammar rules just makes things more confusing, and the best thing to do is get out the ol' flashcards. :) May 22, 2017 at 17:13

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .