How should we describe substitutions in phonology?

I have just read the very nice paper by Little, Bernhardt & Payne (2014) in the open-access journal CJSLPA. It contains a very nice description of nonlinear phonology followed by an analysis of the speech produced by a child with a rare metabolic condition called “3-methylglutaconic aciduria type I”. I liked the early part of the paper in which the authors discuss nonlinear phonology from two perspectives, optimality theory versus a connectionist modeling approach, because personally I find OT to be a waste of time because it is my opinion that this model is not biologically plausible whereas connectionist modeling (depending on the model of course) can often do a pretty decent job of simulating developmental processes. So I found that part to be interesting. As for the latter part of the paper, I got a bit hung up in the details unfortunately, and one detail in particular was crazy making: The authors described the substitution errors like this:  “Fricatives were deleted or substituted with stops or other fricatives; /ɹ/ was deleted or substituted with [w] (onset), or with a vowel (coda)” (p. 289).

If you are younger than me this may not strike you as strange but it was to me so odd I looked it up and I found a discussion about the usage of the word “substituted” on the on-line Oxford Dictionary which says that the traditional form is “A was substituted for B” but that due to frequent use by sports commentators the form “B was substituted with A” is currently  accepted usage despite the fact that “this can be confusing” (no kidding!). Apparently in chemistry it is common to say “B was substituted by A” which is a form my students in Quebec will use which has always confused the heck out of me.

In phonology, the confusion is particularly acute because of the use of the short form A/B  in both informal and formal written reports to describe children’s speech errors. Recently I was interacting with an SLP who was asking for advice about a child and she described the child’s errors as t/k, d/g. Confusion reigned until it was established that the child’s pattern was backing and not fronting!

So it looks to me that if we have a child who says “keep” /kip/ = [tip], we now have alternative forms of communicating this in the SLP community:

Old fogie way:

  • Long form: The child substituted [t] for /k/.
  • Short form: t/k substitution

New fangled way:

  • Long form: The child substituted /k/ with [t]. (The child substituted /k/ by [t].)
  • Short form: k/t substitution

This means that we have a serious problem with confusion in written reports when the short form is used. In oral reporting there is still a risk of confusion because we do not typically transmit the square brackets and slashes when we are speaking.

So, solutions, anyone?

Leave a comment


  1. B. May Bernhardt

     /  November 6, 2014

    Hello, Susan. Thanks for the feedback about the word substituted etc. Things do slip into the parlance that can end up confusing. In trying to find different ways to say the same thing, we can get more obtuse. Thanks for the note!! May

    • Thank you for your comment May, we had a fun and wide ranging conversation about this on twitter and one thing that emerged is that the the “substituted by” form is really popular in Quebec due to French influence; all other twitter SLPs said they use “substituted for” but I still see a lot of confusion with the a/b in writing that the linguists said would be cleared by always using the /a/ -> [b] notation which is what we did in our book but that could still be said as “a substituted with b” I guess but personally most of us on twitter did not use that form. Really interesting paper. I am working on the second edition of DPD so added it to my list of new citations for the book. Susan

  2. Jenny Pahl

     /  March 16, 2016

    I agree with the confusion. When writing about substitutions/patterns in reports which parents will read, we use the k –> t form with examples in the same form k g –> t d for example cow –> tow; gold –> dold

  3. Enjoying the way this “multi platform” discussion has migrated from your blog, via the phono-tx list, weaving its way around Twitter a few times, and back to here to you blog, Susan! Where to next, I wonder, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or a real-life face-to-face discussion. I also like its internationalness, you and May in Canada, Jenny in South Africa, me in Australia! Who’s next?!

    • I too am enjoying its “internationalness”. It is interesting how it keeps coming around. I think that there is so much to teach in phonology now – the topic gets more and more complex all the time – that the “basic” stuff is getting missed, thus no consensus on this simple yet important issue. Susan

  4. It might help if test publishers included guidelines. My preference, for clarity for families is:

    Kim substitutes [t] for /k/ (e.g., “Tim” for “Kim”).
    Kim makes t/k substitutions (e.g., “Tim” for “Kim”)
    Kim makes t/k substitutions in the syllable initial position only (e.g., “Tim” for “Kim”, “betause” for “because”)

    and the like. SLP/SLT reports are difficult enough for people unfamiliar with out terminology without mangling the language!

  5. * your blog
    ** our terminology
    Signed: Typo Queen


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