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In colloquial German, you can say something to the effect of

Would it be an idea to move the bike shed a bit to the left?

and it is immediately understood that "an idea" is supposed to mean "a good idea".

I tend to use this "an idea" in my English conversations as well, but I am unsure about its validity. Sure, it's never a problem to understand what is meant, but is it commonly used and good style?

Googling seems to suggest that it indeed is valid and relatively broadly used. Is this true? Is it, like in German, a more colloquial thing?

Edit: Note that I am specifically asking about the use of "an idea" instead of "a good idea".

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7 Answers 7

up vote 6 down vote accepted

From my experience (American Eng.), Would it be an idea... is very uncommon, and while I might understand that you're looking for an opinion on its merits, if you asked something like

Would it be an idea if I shot myself in the leg?

My initial (perhaps smart aleck) reaction would be more along the lines of "Well, yes, it's an idea. It's just not a good one", so I would recommend keeping the good barring a good reason to drop it (as opposed to just a reason, I suppose).

I should also point out that what is much more common is to respond to someone else's idea/plan with the phrase Hey, there's an idea. In this phrasing, it's normally implied that it is a good one.

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An idea, used in phrases like that's an idea, means worthy of consideration.

The sentence you wrote could be rewritten as

Would moving the bike shed a bit to the left be worthy of consideration?

I would not use an idea to mean a good idea.

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I am also an American English speaker, and I hear the usage you're asking about occasionally. For whatever reason, it's usually with might rather than would; "might it be an idea to..." I hear its implications similarly to how Ed Guiness describes, where it is in fact asking about whether it's a good idea, but the speaker is being more tentative about it than if they had said "good".

It is fairly colloquial, yes. I would not use it, or expect to see it, in formal writing and would find it a mismatch in tone if it appeared there.

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I would neither use "idea" or "good idea", as both sound very German to me (although I'm also a German native speaker). There are several other options in English conveying the same notion. e.g.:

Do you think it's sensible to ...

Does it make sense to ...

Does it work ...

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"Good idea" is definitely rooted in anglo-saxon culture as well, but "an idea" seems to be getting a very mixed response. –  Pekka 웃 Feb 3 '11 at 15:28

As a native English (NZ/Aust/British) speaker, when I hear this phrase I do immediately assume the person suggesting the idea thinks it has some merit.

Why else would they have suggested it?

With regard to the absence of positive adjectives such as "...a good idea..." I believe this is somewhat dependent on a cultural tendency to be reserved in expression.

For instance to say "would it be an idea?" is preferred to "would it be a good idea?" since the former implies a lesser presumption of the merits of the idea. This allows the other person more scope to judge for themselves, and thereby engage in discussion of merit, rather than manoeuvring them into a polarised stance. On the contrary side it is a more passive way of mentioning the idea and therefore more easily dismissed, so it might be seen as a submissive manner of speaking.

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You don't hear "would it be an idea" often in English, if at all. Pretty much anything, any suggestion, would be an idea of some kind. Stating it this way might even invite a snarky response, such as: "Yes, that's an idea. So is jumping in the lake."

What you might say, however, if you weren't sure your idea had merit (and therefore didn't want to attach "good" to it), would be something like

Here's an idea. Why not ... [explanation of suggestion]

or

I have an idea. Why not ... [explanation of suggestion]

You could also say

Here's one idea: Why not ... [explanation of suggestion]

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Would it be a good idea if... is frequently used in English. Somehow, you have to specify that the idea you will outline is good. You can also split it in two sentences as in I have an idea: why don't we do the following. In that case, people are assuming you think it's a good idea.

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1  
I mean specifically the use of "would it be an idea" instead of "would it be a good idea". I'll clarify my question to that effect –  Pekka 웃 Feb 3 '11 at 12:23

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