The Grammarphobia Blog

Suffice it to say

Q: Which is the correct usage, “suffice to say” or “suffice it to say”?

A: You’re the second person in a week to ask us about this usage. In modern English, the common expression is “suffice it to say,” though “it suffices to say” and “suffice to say” have their adherents.

Why the “it”? Let’s begin with the etymology of the verb “suffice.”

It’s defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: “to be enough, sufficient, or adequate for a purpose or the end in view.”

The word comes from the Latin verb sufficere (to be sufficient or adequate) and was first recorded in English in about 1325.

Here’s how Sir Thomas More used it in 1528 in one of his dialogues: “Yet yf he lacked charite, all hys fayth suffised not.”

And here it is in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1596): “ ’twixt such friends as wee, / Few words suffice.” 

Almost from the beginning, however, people also used this kind of construction: subject + “suffice” + “to” + infinitive. Here are a pair of 19th-century examples:

1839, from Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation: “A very short time would suffice to teach him to read.”

1883, from the Manchester Guardian: “A little thing has sufficed to destroy the balance of a structure that was already tottering.”

A similar construction would be “it suffices to say,” but as the OED points out, the subjunctive version of the expression (“suffice it to say”) is the one now commonly used.

The dictionary quotes the poet John Dryden as writing “It suffices to say” in 1692,  but the later examples, from the 18th and 19th centuries, are in the subjunctive mood: “suffice it to say.”

The OED indicates that “formerly,” the expression sometimes appeared without the “anticipatory subject it.” In other words, “suffice to say” was once used, but no more.

The dictionary seems to be a bit behind the times here. Although “suffice it to say” and “it suffices to say” are far more common today, the “it”-less version is very much with us.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “suffice it to say,” 24 million hits; “it suffices to say,” 1.2 million hits; “suffice to say,” 349,000 hits.

In modern times, according to the OED, the “it” version of the expression is “chiefly in the subjunctive.”

Why the subjunctive?

Well, it’s not unusual for a rather archaic-sounding subjunctive (like “suffice it …”) to survive in a common expression rather than the straightforward indicative version (“it suffices …”). 

For example, we use the subjunctive in such common sayings as “God be with you,” “far be it from me,” “heaven help us,” “God forbid,” “Long live the Queen,” “the powers that be,” “so be it,” and “come what may.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written a blog item about the survival of older vestiges of the subjunctive in constructions like those.

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