When to use suppose vs. supposed to


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Hello, students. It’s Shayna from EspressoEnglish.net. Today, I’m really happy to be doing this lesson about the words suppose and supposed to because a student asked me about them. I realized that they really are quite confusing. Today, I’m going to explain the difference and give you lots of examples because these are easiest to understand when you see examples.

How to pronounce “suppose” and “supposed to”

First thing is that there’s a pronunciation difference between suppose which ends with a Z sound, and supposed to, which has an S sound. They’re spelled very similarly but in this one, the S sounds like a Z and in this one, the S sounds like an S. We have suppose and supposed to. There’s a pronunciation difference.

There’s a difference in the way these words are used as well. Let’s start with suppose.

How to use “suppose”

Suppose is a verb and it means that you assume something to be true.

For example, if I come home and I see that my brother’s car is not here, then I could say, “Oh, I suppose he went to the store.” I am guessing or imagining or believing that if his car is not here then he went out. “I suppose he went to the store.” I am assuming that to be true.

Or another example would be let’s say I’m talking with you and you tell me, “Oh, I have a big test tomorrow.” I would say, “Ah, I suppose you have to study tonight.” That means I assume it’s true that you need to study tonight. That is how suppose is used as a verb, to say that you assume something is true.

Now, there’s another way to use suppose which is a way to show reluctance or to show hesitance. For example, let’s say you and I are in an argument and you’re giving more convincing arguments than me and so you’ve convinced me that you’re probably right about this fact or this point of view.

I could say, “Oh, I suppose you’re right.” This means I’m agreeing that you’re right but I’m reluctant about it. I don’t really want to admit that you’re right so I say, “Ah, I suppose you’re right.” It shows reluctance in agreeing with you.

Or another example, let’s say my husband wants to go out to a party and I’m not really excited about but I agree to go because he wants to. When we’re getting ready to leave, he could say, “Are you ready to go?” I could say, “I suppose so.”

This would be a way to say, “Yes, I am ready,” but I am showing reluctance. I am showing that I don’t really want to go to the party but I suppose I’m ready to go. A lot of this reluctance has to do with the way you say it. The tone of voice also demonstrating that you’re not really excited about it or you’re not enthusiastic. That’s how we use the verb suppose.

Am/Is/Are Supposed to

It’s different from the expression, be supposed to.

Now, this expression confuses a lot of students because we have a lot of expressions like need to and must and ought to when talking about rules and permission and then you have supposed to which doesn’t seem to fall into any of the categories.

Be supposed to is what we use when something is required or expected but maybe not always done. We use this for a rule that is often not followed.

Here’s a good example. “Children are supposed to be quiet in school.” Children are supposed to be quiet in school, that is what is required and expected but in reality, children don’t always follow this rule. Children often talk or laugh or make noise in school. Children are supposed to be quiet but in reality, they don’t always follow this rule. That’s a good example.

Or another example is let’s say today is a day I need to work but I have a stomachache and I stay home from work. Then I could say, “I’m supposed to be at work today but I felt sick so I stayed home.” When I say, “I’m supposed to be at work,” that means I’m expected to be at work or I’m required or normally I should be at work today but I’m not doing it because I feel sick. Make sure to use a form of the verb to be so, “Children are supposed to be quiet in class,” and, “I am supposed to be at work today.” Don’t forget to include a form of the word “be.”

Was / Were supposed to

Now, we can use supposed to in the present as in those two examples, or we can talk about in the past, things that were supposed to happen but for some reason, they didn’t happen.

For example, let’s say I’m going to the airport and my flight leaves at 8:00. But I got caught in traffic or I had a problem, a delay. I got to the airport late and I missed my flight at 8:00. That was okay. The airline put me on another flight later at 9:00 so then I could tell someone, “I was supposed to be on the 8:00 flight but I took the 9:00 flight instead.” That’s a way of saying that in the past, I was supposed to, I was required or expected to be on the 8:00 flight but the plans changed and I got the 9:00 flight instead.

Another example of using supposed to in the past would be, “Let’s say you agree to meet your friends at the library. All of your friends are there except for one person. You don’t know where this person is. But the next day, he calls and says, “Hey, I was waiting for you guys at the coffee shop.” You say, “The coffee shop? You were supposed to go to the library.” Again, we’re talking about something that was required or expected in the past, the person was supposed to go to the library but they didn’t. That’s saying that was required or expected but not done.

I hope these examples have made it clear for you. If you’d like to get more lessons then take a course with me. I have courses on vocabulary, speaking, listening, pronunciation, idioms, phrasal verbs, check out the link with this video to see the available courses. Thank you so much for your question and I’ll see you in the next video.

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