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July 26th, 2006

Suppose to or supposed to? / on your person

by Barbara Wallraff


Jess Tomas, of Chandler, Ariz., writes: “‘Suppose to’ or ‘supposed to’: Is either of these expressions appropriate, and if so, which one is correct?”


Dear Jess: “Supposed to” is good English -- but good grief, even some journalists make the mistake of writing “suppose to” instead. I found quite a few examples in newspapers online. For instance, The Missoulian (Mont.) recently quoted a man who had lost his home to fire as saying: “That camper-trailer was suppose to last one winter while I built my house. It lasted six years.”

If you pronounce “supposed” the way it looks as if it ought to be pronounced -- as opposed to both the inelegant “s’pose” and the three-syllable “sa-po-zed” we use in phrases like “a supposed threat” -- I’ll bet you’ll realize why “supposed to,” not “suppose to,” is correct. “That camper-trailer was supposed to last one winter” means, roughly, “That camper-trailer was intended to last one winter” or “It was supposed (we’re not told by whom) that the camper-trailer would last one winter.”

Newspaper reporters are supposed to render quotes exactly the way their sources said them, and copy editors aren’t supposed to change the wording of quotes, so errors in quotes are often left in intentionally. But someone should have corrected this one. The “d” sound in “supposed” gets drowned out by the “t” sound in “to,” so “supposed to” sounds just like “suppose to.” The paper should have given the poor guy who lost his camper-trailer the benefit of the doubt.




Steve Dehnke, of Canton, Mich., writes: “While my family was out to dinner recently, I noticed that my 6-year-old son had ketchup on him. As I wiped it off, I said, ‘Zachary, you got ketchup on your person.’ My daughter and wife laughed at me, and now that has become their joke. They will ask me, ‘How is your person today?’ ‘Have you spilled anything on your person?’ Was my original comment to my son incorrect?”


Dear Steve: Not at all. One of the meanings Webster’s New World Dictionary gives for “person” is “bodily form or appearance,” which it illustrates with the example “to be neat about one’s person.” The word has had this meaning (among others) since the 1300s.

It is more formal than the language most people use when talking to a 6-year-old. Well, fine. I get lots of letters from people who say they’re grateful to their mother or father or grade-school teacher for insisting they speak correctly in childhood. I get letters from people who regret that no one did insist and no one in their family was well-educated, so they’ve been unsure of their command of English for their whole life. In fact, I’m the only person I know who has ever complained that she was taught to speak too properly when she was young (both my parents were college professors) and later had to teach herself how to talk like a normal person. Take it from me: It’s a good problem to have.




© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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