I'm asking this because I feel insecure using some sentences. I've heard English teachers (though non-native) say 'change seats' to imply 'swap places'.

My question: are all these sentences right?

  1. I want to say take your partner's book and give yours to him/her:

    • Change books.
    • Exchange books.
    • Swap books.
  2. I want to say stand up and go sit down on your friends chair while s/he sitting on yours.

    • Exchange seats (or chairs).
    • Change places.
    • Swap seats.


  • It appears that swap and exchange have the same meaning. Personally I'd have used exchange for the first, and swap for the second. – drM. Mar 5 '16 at 9:34
  • So you don't recommend using 'change' in any of those examples, right? – Yuri Mar 5 '16 at 9:43
  • 1
    Sure man, no problem! I'm not a native and that's why I didn't write an answer, personally I think that change is uncorrect for both options: change books doesn't imply something mutual; change places doesn't imply that you swap. You could just go somewhere else. – drM. Mar 5 '16 at 9:49

Exchange and swap are fine, with exchange being a little more "formal"-sounding. "swap" is a colloquial word, and you might prefer to use "trade" instead...but carries the correct meaning either way. "switch" is another word you could use.

"change" is tricky. It does not mean the same thing as "exchange", but sounds kind of similar. So it is sometimes idiomatic to use "change X with" to mean "trade X with".

Not all cases sound as normal, and the "with" is required to mean this.

I want to say take your partner's book and give yours to him/her:

  • Change books.

Here, "change books" alone doesn't really convey the idea that you are taking each other's books. Consider the sentence "Both you and your partner need to change books" - this just says whatever book each of you have, you need to both get a different book...not necessarily each other's.

If you say "change books with your partner", it might be understood because of the "with" (given it probably doesn't mean anything besides exchange). But I wouldn't say that, it doesn't look right to me.

I want to say stand up and go sit down on your friends chair while s/he sitting on yours.

  • Change places.

"change places with" is one of the idiomatic cases that sounds normal. However, it does need the "with".

For instance, "Both you and your partner need to change places" has no with, and just suggests both of you need to be in different places than where you currently are.

But "change places with your partner" would be understood to mean taking each other's places. Outside of changing "places with", I don't know what the complete list of "normal" usages of change => exchange would be.

To be on the safe side, don't use change to mean "exchange" unless you're saying "change places with". To be on the even safer side, don't use it then either. :-)


Insofar as books go, I would probably say this:

Let's trade books

You could also use swap (which has a more "homey" feel, but that might be regional), or exchange (which has a more formal feel – like what a customer might do at a bookstore).

Another tricky facet of this, though, is the meaning might be ambiguous. Words like trade and swap can mean one of two things:

  • a permanent change of ownership - where you become the owner of the book that I previously owned, and I become the owner of the book that you previously owned, or
  • a temporary change of custody - where I am borrowing your book while you are borrowing mine, but we intend to give them back to each other later on.

When it comes to seats, though, we could say:

Let's change places

which also has some built-in ambiguity. If you and I went to a movie together, and I said, "Let's change places," that could mean:

  • Let me sit in your seat, and you can sit in mine, or
  • Let's you and me move to another part of the theater.

I think "Let's swap seats" or "Let's trade places" are more inclined to refer to the first meaning than the second, but even that depends on the context. If we are standing in line with our tickets, and I say, "Let's swap seats," that could easily mean, "Let's go to the ticket window and see if we can't get some better seats."

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