A lot of my students seem to think we make suggestions by saying, ‘I suggest…’ Similarly with proposals and recommendations, they seem to think ‘I propose…’ or ‘I recommend…’ is what we say. They’re perfectly logical. The only problem is of course, we’re not.
In practice we generally use those verbs to ‘talk about’ suggestions, rather than actually make them. So in speech data they seem to show up in contexts where we want to be explicit. We might use them to clarify something:
Are you suggesting that…?
Or to signal something we’re going talk about:
We’d like to propose a different solution…
Or we might use them to report what someone else has said.
They recommended we change the plans.
They often seem to crop up in conflict situations where somebody is trying to be precise and formally go on-record about what’s being said. But when we’re involved in friendly collaboration, more tentative expressions like ‘How about…? or ‘What if we…?’ or ‘Why don’t we..?’ are more likely to pop out of our mouths. (Pretending like other people have a choice when they don’t really seems to be a feature of anglo English.)
The phrases ‘I disagree’ and ‘I don’t agree’ are similar and they rarely come up in native speaker workplace conversation. My students, on the other hand, say them a lot, along with that another famous line: ‘I am not agree’. That one we react to because it’s ‘ungrammatical’. The rules are much clearer for written sentence grammar.
Getting that grammar wrong means someone doesn’t know the language. So if someone says ‘I am not agree’ we understand their English is dodgy and make allowances. The potential for relationship damage is limited. It’s when they get the social rules wrong that things get tricky. We think they might have ‘a difficult personality’ and they go on probation while we try to figure them out.
We seem to say ‘I disagree’ when we want to be explicit, perhaps to clarify when there’s a misunderstanding:
No, no. You don’t understand what I said. I disagree with that idea.
Or to report what someone else has said.
Toby doesn’t agree with us.
By way of contrast, we seem to accomplish agreement pretty easily with a quick ‘Good’, ‘Right’, ‘Yeah’ or whatever. There’s no potential for relationship damage there. It’s the disagreements that challenge us. So at the start of turns we might hesitate, (Errr… well…) claim partial agreement (Yes, but…), ask questions (How much will that cost?) or change the subject and suggest something completely different instead (So does anyone feel like a cup of coffee?)
If I were learning English, I think I’d want to be perceived as a decent and likeable sort of person and relational stuff like this would be pretty important. So how about it? Is it time to rethink how we teach functions like these?
And for more on pragmatics and sociolinguistics, check out my Learning to speak ‘merican blog which explores how meanings get conveyed (or not) in greater depth, along with issues like politeness and directness.