October 15, 2005

Suffices to say

I guess I'm getting interested in eggcorns after all.

Yesterday I had lunch with a couple of nonlinguist friends, and one of them asked me whether "suffice it to say" or "suffices to say" is grammatically correct. I had never heard (or read) "suffices to say" before, but I had some educated guesses about how to answer my friend's question, which were later generally confirmed with a few quick Google searches.

First, my educated guesses. I think "suffice it to say" is the right idiomatic phrase, but it's easy to see why it might be misanalyzed as "suffices to say". For one thing, "suffice" is not a commonly-used verb in English outside of this idiom. Thinking it over since the conversation over lunch yesterday, I can only think of one other common use: the phrase- or sentence-final use that is typically preceded by a modal; e.g., "a simple phone call would suffice". The available evidence thus does not make it clear that this verb can be used transitively, the "it" of "suffice it to say" not being particularly referential. Moreover, the subjectless subjunctive is also not very common in English anymore; there's no reason to think that the covert subject is third person singular, and thus that the verb is third person indicative, which in the present tense is "suffices", which sounds sufficiently like "suffice it" to complete the misanalysis.

[ Update, Oct. 17: Rich Alderson writes to offer the following better-educated alternative analysis:

In what way is "suffice it to say" to be taken transitively, or to have a covert subject? It is, of course, a frozen subjunctive, with nonpersonal "it" as subject, and the typical inverted subject-verb ordering of older hortatory subjunctives in English (as in the example you quoted, "be that as it may").

Add in the slightly more archaic "suffice to say", and the common conversion of frozen subjunctives to an indicatives ("it suffices to say"), and we have the situation with which your friend presented you.

Absolutely right -- don't know what I was thinking by calling that "it" an object. (Can you say "that suffices me" as an alternative to "that is sufficient to/for me"? I think not.) I need to work on my syntactic analysis skills, or maybe I just need to buy the Cambridge Grammar.

Incidentally, further perceptive comments on this post can be found here. ]

Now, the results of my Google searches. {"suffice it to say"} gets over 2 million hits, whereas {"suffices to say"} gets just under 100,000. More interestingly, the vast majority of the examples of "suffices to say" (roughly 90%) are subparts of {"it suffices to say"}, which indicates to me that, among most people who use "suffices to say", the misanalysis is fairly complete: roughly put, if they were just misanalyzing "suffice it" as "suffices" but otherwise just memorizing the phrase as an idiomatic, subjectless indicative clause, there would be no motivation for adding the subject "it". (Incidentally, I also got a literal handful of 5 hits for {"he suffices to say"}, and none for {"she suffices to say"}.)

Finally, the first hit in my search for "suffice it to say" was for a Random House "Word of the Day" page. (The link to the original page appears to be dead, so I relied on Google's cache thereof "as retrieved on Oct 8, 2005 18:17:28 GMT".) The word of the day on July 14, 1997 was apparently "suffice", but the text on the page (copied below) is a response to someone's question about the idiomatic phrase "suffice it to say". Details aside, the parallels between what's said in this response and what I thought about it over lunch yesterday are pretty remarkable, given that I'm not a grammarian of English -- though of course this may say more about this particular Random House Word of the Day columnist's abilities than about mine ...

Allison Payne writes:

I hear people say "suffice it to say..." To my way of thinking, this should be "let it suffice to say that..." Is there a rule about this or am I getting irritated for no reason?

You're getting irritated for no reason. There are a few things going on here, and the easiest thing to do would be to say it's just an established idiom, but we can look at it in some more detail.

Suffice has several meanings, of which the most important, and the only truly current one, is the intransitive 'to be enough or adequate': "Two hours should suffice"; "Why need I volumes, if one word suffice?" (Emerson).

In the expression suffice it to say, the word suffice is a subjunctive. In other words, it does mean "let it suffice to say...." In the past there were various ways suffice could be used in the subjunctive ("Suffise, that I haue done my dew in place"--Spenser; "My designs/Are not yet ripe; suffice it that ere long/I shall employ your loves"--Beamont and Fletcher), but now it is effectively found only in this set phrase. This example is known as the formulaic subjunctive: an invariant expression found chiefly in independent clauses. Some other examples of the formulaic subjunctive are the phrases "Be that as it may..." (i.e. "let that be..."); "Come what may...," "God save the Queen!" (i.e. "may God save the Queen"), and others, none of which excite any controversy.

The it in suffice it to say is an impersonal or indefinite pronoun, one that functions as a grammatical placeholder without supplying much real meaning. Relevant examples, which are assigned to various complex subcategories by grammarians, are "it's raining," "go it alone," or "it behooves you," where behoove itself is an impersonal verb we discussed last year.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at October 15, 2005 02:29 PM