Wise old owl – propose or suggest

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Wise Old Owl

What’s the difference between words like propose and suggest, and can you give me any more?

This vocabulary question came up in my Facebook group – Click here if you want to join, but make sure that you also answer the joining questions.

There are many ways of saying that you would like something to be done, and it’s important to choose one that’s appropriate to the task, and also to the relationship that you have with the other person. If you start making demands of your boss, they won’t respond well. If you suggest that you and a friend go for coffee in a very formal way, they might not say anything, but the question will seem a bit out of place.

Let’s look at some of these phrases in more detail:

You are required to
There is no option here. Someone has to do something, and you should be able to back this up with authority or a reason. You are required to wear safety goggles in this area of the factory. It’s not a choice, but something someone has to do, often for legal reasons. If there isn’t a law behind the reason, it’s usually some kind of fixed company policy.

You need to
There’s no element of choice here, but it’s less formal than “you are required to”. You need to be back here by 14:00 because the buss will leave at that time.

I propose that
This is very formal. If you say that you propose to someone, you’re asking them to marry you. So that’s a big, serious change!
You can also draw up a business proposal, with figures, evidence to justify your idea, and a plan for how to get things done.
If you say “I propose that…” the thing that comes after it needs to be somewhat formal. It could be as simple as a proposal to meet again in six months, but it needs to be something quite serious. You wouldn’t propose that you meet your friends for coffee.

I request that
The other person doesn’t have to do it, but you’re asking them to. The word request is more formal than the word ask, which makes it sound a bit more business-like. But they other person could still say “no”.

Please can you
This is a simple request. Still polite, but less formal than requesting something. This is very versatile – you can use it for many different people and situations. Just don’t forget the word “please” – people will respond better to you if you use it.

I advise you to
The other person doesn’t have to do what you say, but you are telling them what you think they should do. You are giving advice. This is still quite formal and I would generally use it for more important advice, or for things that could have consequences for a business, not small personal matters.

I suggest that you
Here you are making a suggestion. It’s not as strong as advising someone to do something, but you are giving them an idea, or telling them what you would do in the situation.

I would like you to
This is also a request, and it really depends on who’s saying “I would like you to” as to how seriously you take it. Someone could say to me “I would like you to give English lessons at 2AM”, and it won’t happen! But if your boss says “I would like you to update me on this by the end of the day”, you can assume that it’s a request that you should be taking seriously!

Why don’t you
We use this to make a suggestion, but in a more informal way. It’s giving your advice without telling someone what to do. When you say it, the emphasis is not on the “why don’t you”, but on whatever comes next. You have to say it in a friendly way though, because “why don’t you” is also used when you’re angry with someone.
Why don’t you see if anyone else is available to help you?
As opposed to

Shall we
This is a more informal way of making a suggestion. Shall we meet again in two weeks? Shall we book the big meeting room?

This means “let us” and is informal. You usually use it when you’re suggesting something that the other person won’t object to. It’s got to be something that they will like, and not something that you are asking them to do.
“Let’s go for ice-cream” is fine.
“Let’s rearrange our meeting” is fine if you’ve both agreed that you need a bit more time before meeting up, but it’s not ok if you just decide you don’t have time and you want someone else to accommodate you by changing their plans.

More articles in this series

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Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

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