An ELT Glossary : Reference and Substitution


In each of the following sentences, the second highlighted element forms a cohesive tie with the first. A pro-form or other expression is used to to replace a word, phrase or clause used earlier in the text, thus avoiding repetition.

Group A

  • Anne walked in and sat down. She picked up a newspaper.
  • John sipped his coffee.
  • John suggested a publicity campaign. The idea obviously had advantages but....
  • By 1933 the family was forced to live in the poorest section of town, along with countless others who were similarly affected. 

Group B
  • By 1933 the family was forced to live in the poorest section of town, along with countless others who were similarly affected.  
  • John sipped his coffee. I did so too.
  •  Would you like an icecream? / Yes, I’d love one.

However, there is a difference between them. The underlined items in Group A are reference items : the referring word/phrase is identical to the one it replaces. In these contexts She is Anne, the publicity campaign is the idea - and so on. The reference item could be taken out and replaced with the original : John sipped John's coffee / Yes, I'd love an icecream / ...along with countless others. Countless others were similarly affected...

Those in Group B, on the other hand, are substitution devices. The substituting item replaces not the the exact item used elsewhere  but indicates an object, action, concept etc that is similar in concept. Eg : John sipped his coffee. I did so too.  This would normally not be taken to mean that I sipped John’s coffee, but that I sipped my own.

Substitution also differs grammatically from reference in that substitution items can be modified by determiners, adjective or adverbs – eg:

  • Do you like that blue coat? /No but I like that red one, I really do.
  • ...along with countless others  
This can't happen with referring expressions : *that red it.

For a fuller account of different types of reference, see Reference