The Grammarphobia Blog

What do you suggest?

Q: What is the graceful or correct way to use “suggest” when it’s an I-don’t-know-what-kind-of-verb (not transitive, I think). I’ve recently read such things as “I was suggested to study harder.”

A: Anyone who’d say “I was suggested to study harder” should probably study harder. The usual way to say that would be “It was suggested I study harder” or “It was suggested I should study harder.”

The verb “suggest” can mean to propose, to express possibility, to state indirectly, to evoke, and so on.

There are several ways the verb can be used in modern English, depending on the context: with an object (that is, transitively), with a quotation, or with a clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb).

When used to introduce a clause (with or without “that”), the verb in the clause is often in the subjunctive mood, especially in American English: “They suggested that he study Latin.” The indicative is more common in British English: “They suggested that he should study Latin.”

Here are a few examples of “suggest” used to propose something for consideration: “He suggested that we wait a few days before voting”  … “ ‘We should wait a few days,’ ” he suggested” … “He suggested a delay.”

And here “suggest” expresses the possibility of something: “The smell of bitter almonds suggests that poison was used” … “The smell of bitter almonds suggests cyanide.”

In these examples, it’s used to state something indirectly: “Are you suggesting I’m a liar?” … “No, I’m not suggesting any such thing.” And here “suggest” is used when one thing evokes another: “The cloudy sky suggests El Greco’s View of Toledo.”

When the verb “suggest” showed up in English in the early 1500s, it was transitive and the object was an idea put into someone’s mind, “esp. of insinuating or prompting to evil,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example for this sense is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 religious treatise by William Bonde:

“The angell of Sathanas … euer suggestyng and mouyng some vyce, vnder the colour of vertue” (“The angel of Satan … ever suggesting and prompting some vice, under the color of virtue”).

English borrowed “suggest” from Latin, where suggest- is the past participial stem of suggerĕre (to bring up, supply, provide), according to the dictionary.

Over the years, Oxford says, it’s been used in “extended application, to propose as an explanation or solution, as a course of action, as a person or thing suitable for a purpose, or the like.”

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