Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

“Suffice it to say” or “suffice to say”?

7 Comments

The issue

The plot makes twists and turns like a snake writhing in the desert. To tell would be to spoil, but suffice to say, writer, director and cast have colluded brilliantly.

Fraser’s scenes are painfully boring to watch—suffice it to say, he’s not a master of physical comedy.


An editor in an online editorial group raised the question of which version is correct, and her query elicited more than 80 comments. Many people swore that suffice to say was the correct and only version, and that suffice it to say was a “hairy mutant”. People in the other camp lambasted their opponents, and resorted to dictionaries to prove beyond a doubt that the four-word version was gospel. What is the truth of the matter?

Quick takeaways

  • Both forms are in use (see more detail at Frequency below).
  • Suffice it to say is slightly more frequent in a British corpus, and much more frequent in an American one.
  • Suffice it to say was formerly considered standard, and is still seen by many people as the only correct formulation.
  • However, possibly because of its puzzling syntax, it is often “regularized” to suffice to say.
  • The traditional formula is still widely used, and useful, despite being considered pompous or old-fashioned by some.
  • There are strange variations on it, such as sufficed to say and the eggcornish surface it to say.

Below, I look in more detail at the grammar, frequency and history of this phrase, which the Oxford Dictionary Online aptly defines as “Used to indicate that one is saying enough to make one’s meaning clear while withholding something for reasons of discretion or brevity.”

Meanwhile, the results of the poll embedded in this blog show that the option with most votes is that both versions are ‘correct’. Which you use is likely to depend on where you’re from, how you first heard or used the phrase, and how you parse it, among other things.


If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!


 

Lost and Confused Signpost

Syntax

Three things are worth mentioning about suffice it to say. First, the subject of the sentence is the “dummy” or impersonal it. Second, the verb form is subjunctive—the absence of the normal third person singular –s shows this, i.e. suffice, rather than suffices. Third, there is subject-verb inversion.

The phrase thus belongs to that very small group of “fossilized” phrases in which the subjunctive is used: God save the Queen! far be it from me to…, Perish the thought! All of them could be rewritten as “Let + subject + verb” i.e. let God save the Queen, let it suffice to say, etc. In particular, far be it from me displays the same subject-verb inversion.

However, the fact that such subjunctive phrases are rare and on the fringes of most people’s grammar means, I believe, that they have difficulty analyzing the “suffice it to say” form, and therefore attempt to regularize it to “suffice to say”. The inversion of subject and verb presents a further block to analysis.

It has also become clear to me, from discussion of this issue in online editorial forums—or fora, if you really, absolutely must—that some people interpret the it as the object of the verb suffice. As a result, they reject it, correctly, in so far as they perceive suffice to be intransitive in this use, but incorrectly if one analyses the phrase as having subject-verb inversion.

“Suffice to say”, however, while sounding superficially like a second person imperative—stand up, wake up, pay attention, etc.—is as anomalous as the four-word form. Who is being addressed in this imperative?

Current situation

Frequency

    • The Oxford English Corpus (OEC) has slightly more examples of the string “suffice to say” than of “suffice it to say”: 952:937 (and each occurs less than once per million words of text.) However, filtering out “suffice to say” as a zero infinitive, i.e. in phrases such as let it suffice to say, it should suffice to say, etc., reduces its total to well below 900, making it, therefore, less frequent than the longer form.
    • Though the shorter form is used in all varieties of English, its use does seem to be particularly marked in Australian English, at least in the OEC data.
    • In the Corpus of Contemporary American the distribution is very different: 376 occurrences of the longer version against 97 for the shorter. It is particularly noticeable that in academic writing the longer form occurs in an even higher ratio of 6:1.
    • A Google Ngrams comparison of “suffice to say” and “suffice it to say” suggests a decline in the use of both phrases over the last century, However, “suffice to say” is often the zero infinitive mentioned previously, and it would be too time-consuming to compare the frequency of the two phrases in detail over time. For the period 1960-2000 (i.e., the latest period covered by Ngrams) “suffice it to say” is the more frequent of the two strings.

Dictionaries

Both the Oxford Online Dictionary and Macquarie bracket the it: suffice (it) to say, indicating clearly that they accept it as optional. Merriam-Webster Online notes “often used with an impersonal it <suffice it to say. Collins shows only the complete phrase.

History

The earliest use of the verb suffice recorded in the unrevised OED (1915) entry is from 1325:

The OED‘s first example of an impersonal use is from the Wycliffite version of the Bible:

He cam the thridde tyme, and seith to hem, Slepe ȝe nowe, and reste ȝe; sothli it sufficith.

Mark xiv. 41

There is then a separate category with the following rubric:

“Const[ruction] inf[initive] or clause with, or (formerly) without, anticipatory dummy subject it. Now chiefly in the subjunctive, suffice it, sometimes short for suffice it to say.”

The first OED citation of this use is from the Middle English (1390) Confessio Amantis, showing an infinitive as the subject of the verb:

to studie upon the worldes lore Sufficeth now withoute more.

There is one more citation before Book-of-Common-Prayerthe Book of Common Prayer on Publyke Baptisme f. iiii*v (1549) showing a similar infinitive construction.

If the childe be weake, it shall suffice to powre water vpon it.

However, the first citation for the exact phrase “suffice it to say” does not appear until a 1779 edition of the periodical The Mirror:

Suffice it to say, that my parting with the Dervise was very tender.

An earlier citation (1692), however, has:

It suffices to say, That Xantippus becoming the manager of affairs, altered extreamly the Carthaginian Army.

  • In the Corpus of Historical American (COHA), the string “suffice to say” is mainly of the zero infinitive type mentioned above. However, the earliest citation of it independently is in 1815, in the drama by Edward Hitchcock the Emancipation of Europe, or The Downfall of Bonaparte: Marshal Ney, no less, replies to a question from Talleyrand, no less, about how a battle went:

    Oh most murderous! Too horrid to relate. Suffice to say Our troops are overwhelmed in toto.

    ney_napoleon

  • The next example from COHA is from Around the Tea-Table (1847), by T. De Witt Talmage (now, there’s a moniker for you!), author, as his title page proclaims, of “Crumbs Swept Up,” “Abominations of Modern Society,” “Old Wells Dug Out,” Etc.

    Perhaps it was gout, although his active habits and a sparse diet throw doubt on the supposition. Suffice to say it was a thorn — that is, it stuck him. It was sharp.

Five O’Clock Tea by American painter Julius LeBlanc Stewart (1855 – 1919)

Five O’Clock Tea by American painter Julius LeBlanc Stewart (1855 – 1919)

“Suffice to Say”—a long-forgotten hit

Googling in connection with this topic, I discovered a 1977 hit by a band called The Yachts. Here are some of the lyrics:

Although the rhyming’s not that hot | It’s quite a snappy little tune | I’m sure you’ll like the chorus too | It’s short and sweet and to the point | It even says that I love you | Just after this: Suffice to say you love me | Can’t say that I blame you | Suffice to say I love you too

Clearly, leaving out it was necessary on rhythmical grounds. And if you want to relive your on-the-fringes-of-Punk days with this little ditty, here it is:

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

7 thoughts on ““Suffice it to say” or “suffice to say”?

  1. Very interesting, as ever, thanks. The sentence that depresses me is “The traditional formula is still widely used, and useful, despite being considered pompous or old-fashioned by some.” Who ARE these people who apparently find phrases, words, grammatical constructs they themselves don’t use/haven’t heard of “pompous or old-fashioned”? …a million examples e.g. any use of “whom”…e.g. use of Latin plurals, such as formulae instead of formulas…e.g. I used “navel” the other day and was told that sounds pompous in America and I should have said “belly-button”, the sound of which makes me want to lose my lunch. Impasse….
    Do we listen to those “some”, dismiss them as chavs or find a middle ground?
    (Of course, you can tell I’m completely unbiased in all this, cough cough).

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  2. An interesting analysis. There is of course another possible analysis of “suffice to say …”; suffice is still a subjunctive (indicating perhaps intention or desire or expectation, or maybe even a jussive subjunctive, just like a third person imperative in languages like Gàidhlig) and the noun phrase “to say …” is the subject of the verb. After all, in “suffice it to say …” the phrase “to say …” is a noun phrase in apposition to the subject “it” so why can’t it be a noun phrase not in apposition to anything in the form without “it”? The OED citation from Confessio Amantis (1390) clearly shows that such a noun phrase has been used as subject of the indicative form of the verb suffice since Middle English times, so clearly it could also be used as the subject of the subjunctive.

    I can’t see any reason to believe that this analysis (together with the idea that some people just don’t like sticking in a redundant pronoun program because it’s less effort to leave it out) isn’t possible, although perhaps less like than the analysis suggesting the form without “it” arose because some people didn’t know about quasi-obsolete (in English) grammatical constructs like subjunctives other than in a few frozen phrases.

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    • Thanks for your alternative analysis, which, if you don’t mind, I shall add to the blog. However, I don’t think it’s an analysis that most editors – who, after all, are probably the only people who care – use. I wrote the blog because of the strength of feeling shown in an editorial forum over what is a very minor matter. People there interpreted ‘it’ as the object of ‘suffice’, which puzzled them.

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  3. Actualy, the omission of “it” shouldn’t be of much interest or concern. Look at “Suffice to say Our troops are overwhelmed in toto”. The use of subjunctive in this way (to express preference, expection, desire, or command) entails subject-verb inversion, and the subject is the noun phrase “to say Our troops are overwhelmed in toto”. All an “it” does in the sentence which has it after “suffice” is act as a pronoun subject to which the real subject is in apposition. Since a noun phrase representing an action (an infinitive) has been usable as the subject of the verb suffice in indicative mood (you quote an example where “to studie upon the worldes lore” is the subject of “sufficeth”) since the Middle English period, we can perhaps expect that the subjunctive too has been able to take an infinitive as subject since those times.

    The first examples of “suffice it to say” (1779) and “suffice to say” (1815) are fairly close together in time. The latter is from a period when grammar was a hot topic (as evidenced by the numerous myths about grammar devised in the 19th century) and Edward Hitchcock was a well educated man – when he wrote that line he was preceptor of Deerfield College, and subsquently became at various times Professor of Natural History at Amsherst, Professor of Chemistry at Amsherst, President of Amshurst, founder of the American Geology Association, and was awarded honorary doctorates in Law (Harvard) and Divinity (Middlebury) and an honorary MA (Yale) – not the sort of person to make errors of grammar, so I suspect it was acceptable as grammatically valid in 1815, probably with the interpretation outlined in my first paragraph above.

    For myself, I always include “it” despite believing that it’s redundant. And I liked Margaret Kennedy’s comment.

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    • Thanks for your comment, which echoes the previous one. It’s very interesting to hear about Hitchcock. I hope the blog doesn’t give the impression that I consider one version ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I don’t: it’s a matter of personal preference, as you say.

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  4. Nice quantitative analysis–thanks!

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