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While the meaning of 代える seems rather straightforward, the other two at times delude me. When should one be used over another? Are there any situations where both 換える and 替える are applicable?

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1 Answer 1

Here's how I understand them

変える: You didn't include it, but most generic. "Change", "alter"

代える: Substitute (one thing for another)

  • バターをマーガリンに代えてみたらどうですか → Why [don't you / not] substitute margarine for butter?

換える: exchange

  • 円をドルに換える → Exchange yen for dollars / Change yen into dollars
  • 乗客に席を換えてもらう → Get another passenger to switch seats with me
  • オイル交換 → Oil change
  • 換気扇 → A ventilation fan

The idea here is that there is some kind of reciprocation. Agent A gives something to agent B, and agent B gives something back to agent A.

替える: Replace (something with a newer something)

  • 古い機械を新しいのに替える必要がある → The old machines need to be replaced by [with] new ones.
  • 畳を替える → Have the tatami mats re-covered
  • 替え芯【しん】 → (pencil) lead refills; (pen) ballpoint pen refill

The truth is, there is a lot of overlap, so it's not always so easy to decide which is most correct.

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I would consider a ballpoint pen refill and an oil change to be somewhat equivalent actions. Could you elaborate on why one uses 替 and the other 換? –  Daniel Safari Dec 13 '13 at 0:51
    
Haha. All I can say is that this is likely part of the overlap, because it seems that way to me too. The only difference I can see is that for an oil change, there's a second party involved (the mechanic), but for changing the ink cartridge in your pen, there isn't. But I think that's a stretch. But then 換気扇 also doesn't fit the mold. So I don't know. –  istrasci Dec 13 '13 at 15:44
    
oil change vs. lead change = 替える is "changing out" one thing for another. 換える is changing the contents in a container. –  virmaior Dec 13 '13 at 16:36

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