The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Suggest: as confidently as you dare

In ELT, we like to put things in neat categories. We categorize modal verbs, for example, as being used to express ability or obligation or advice, even though, in real life, the way we use different forms is much messier and more ambiguous – just try writing an activity that practises modals without stepping outside the boundaries you’ve set for yourself!

It makes sense though, both to teachers and learners, to at least start off with these slightly artificial groupings to help them get to grips with what would otherwise be a rather daunting, abstract mess. When I’m teaching, even at lower levels, I make sure that I stress the slightly artificial nature of these sort of ‘rules’, treating them instead as useful guidelines that speakers can, and often do, break. I sometimes worry when I’m writing materials though that the woolliness I try to build in (with carefully placed oftens, usuallys and typicallys) gets missed.

Recently, I’ve been looking at reporting verbs in academic writing and doing battle with a verb that’s especially difficult to pin down.

Some time ago, a colleague passed on the following query:  “I run a course of academic writing for PhDs and last Friday we had this discussion about the word "suggest". I mentioned it is not a really strong verb, it is not really negative or completely weak but not "one of the strongest" either. And the students from the area of Biology and Biochemistry strongly disapproved saying that it is almost a synonym to "prove" in their fields since there is nothing really that certain. So, I tried to say that there is nothing wrong with that verb but they will hardly get a Nobel Prize for "suggesting things". What do you think?”

Suggest is sometimes pigeon-holed in EAP materials as being a ‘tentative’ reporting verb, but on closer inspection, the situation, unsurprisingly, is more complex. Part of the issue boils down to two different uses which revolve around the subject of the verb:

Person + suggests = put forward
This is used, especially in a literature review, to report ideas, theories, etc. put forward by different people. In some cases, it may be that the idea was originally put forward indirectly, rather than explicitly stated, perhaps talking about possible implications – here suggest is indeed slightly tentative and is more synonymous with imply.  But I think it can also be used more neutrally to mean “this is what x said/wrote”. For the academic writer, it can just be a synonym of put forward or propose, chosen for the sake of variety rather than nuances about confidence or tentativeness. Here are a couple of examples (from the BAWE corpus of student academic writing, both from the biological sciences)

Parsons (1991) suggested that Drosophila species have a role as indicators of habitat change due to their close association with the rainforest habitat in which they live. [not especially tentative?]

Rose et al (1998) suggested that PAR-1 may be the only protein required for establishing polarity, however later evidence contradicts the theory … [more tentative or is that actually shown by the may be?]

Evidence + suggests = indicates
This is used in reporting data, evidence or results of research. In this case, the verb in itself is slightly tentative in that it stops short of saying demonstrates or proves. Here those biology students are probably right in that it’s used in contexts where evidence or results can’t be declared 100% conclusive; because of the nature of the research, the size of the sample, how generalizable the study is, etc. The writer though can show their degree of confidence by modifying the verb; seems to suggest (more tentative), clearly/strongly suggests (as confident as you can be).

The evidence above strongly suggests that organelles were arisen from the endosymbiotic uptake of free-living bacteria by eukaryotic host cells.

The data would seem to suggest that the lowest levels of net radiation also coincided with the lowest wind speeds of the trial.

Interestingly, the breakdown by discipline on the BAWE corpus of students using suggest works out as below (most frequent users first):
1 Archaeology
2 Linguistics
3 Psychology
4 Tourism
5 Biological Sciences
6 Business
These feel to me like disciplines where much has to be inferred, where evidence may be anecdotal or needs interpretation. The hard sciences (Physics, Maths, Chemistry, Computer Science) on the other hand, with their focus on more quantitative data, came down the bottom of the list.

It’s the kind of thing I find fascinating and I’m sure there’s enough material in there for a whole PhD thesis, but as a materials writer, the question is … how do I fit all that into a neat little usage note only a couple of lines long?!

Footnote: I’ve used the BAWE corpus here partly because I think it provides a useful model for student (rather than expert) writing and also partly because it’s open source. I checked the discipline breakdown of ‘suggest’ usage against another (commercial) academic corpus though and it came out with broadly similar results, similar disciplines near the top (and bottom) albeit in a slightly different order.

BAWE corpus  available at: https://the.sketchengine.co.uk/open/ 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

neat analysis thx

maybe giving students a note about author stance and writer stance may be useful? i may be off in my understanding of this though!

so when interpreting Person + suggests we see that as generally being more tentative due to author stance

whereas when interpreting evidence + suggest we see it as author stance so generally less tentative and for biologists they see it "as almost synonym for prove"?

by the way did you check the PERC coorpus which is open (just needs registering) - https://scn.jkn21.com/~percinfo/index.html


4:33 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks for the comment, Mura and the link - always nice to find out about new corpora :)

BTW, I'm going to be doing a talk in Paris on 6 June (on dictionaries) if you're around. I don't know the details yet, but will post them on Twitter and Facebook nearer the time.

5:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great will keep an eye out for it,

also made a typo the second stance should have been writer stance!

7:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi again Julie,
thought u may be interested in another tool (which is still in beta i think)

netcollo, for exmple it gives these results for suggest in corpus of academic medical texts:

it is interesting to note that i could not locate any examples of person + suggest with the default settings


10:52 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks for that link, Mura. I'm not familiar with the tools here though, it only seems to come up with objects of the verb, not subjects. Will have another look when I have more time to work out the tools.

9:02 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes i think you are right about it only giving object of verbs

also found 2 person + suggest examples in Academic Medical from looking at concordances e.g.:

Roh and collaborators ( 135 ) suggested the presence of a pH or membrane-potentialdependent Ca2 + uniport .

We suggest that the presence of acetylcholine alone will not provide an adequate stimulus for the sweat response in the event of nerve degeneration , as the full response requires the combined action of both transmitters , provided that the receptors remain intact after nerve degeneration .

but not many though


2:12 pm  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Great review of this very common verb, Julie! Thanks. I am curious about the use of tense, moreso now. Quite often I notice (and write myself) with 'suggests' in present simple form, despite the claims being from the past, like the authors are saying them as I read them.

1:17 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks, Tyson. Isn't the tense thing just the general convention for academic reporting, i.e. you use present for any idea that generally/still holds true and you only use past for things that have since been discounted or proved wrong (or actual past actions)?

7:13 am  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Good point. I don't think I've articulated it quite that way.

7:58 pm  

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