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What are the differences between offer, propose, and suggest?

  • What did your own dictionaries, thesauruses or search engines leave unclear0? – Robbie Goodwin Dec 4 '18 at 20:36
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  • Suggest an idea to grab something sweet
  • Propose we go eat ice cream
  • Offer to pay for the ice cream
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    Very elegant :) – chaos Mar 1 '11 at 21:37
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    Let me offer this nitpick: I propose that it's possible for someone to suggest we go eat ice cream. – Robusto Apr 4 '11 at 19:47
  • This answer, although elegant, hides under the carpet the actual meanings. The expressions that you chose work fine not because of the meaning of the single verbs, but because of the verbs/nouns they must accompany. Offer to pay - suggest an idea - propose to go: if you choose any other noun/verb you could easily exchange them all. – gented May 7 at 19:09
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The differences are of formality, weight, and exchange.

As Aaron's answer illustrates, offer has an element of exchange or cost implied. For example, the phrase "make an offer" when negotiating the price of something. An offer is from some party to another party, whether you're offering your hand (to balance somebody), your house (to host a party), or a discount (on the sale of an item).

Suggest and propose differ in their level of formality and weight. For example, food often comes with a "Serving Suggestion" (we think about this much would be a good portion) — using propose here would seem overly formal.

Suggest is also used to distinguish between a recommendation and an order. "I suggest you do this" has a different tone to "Do this." Sometimes an intensifier is used to convey that what is formally only a suggestion is actually a command "I strongly suggest you [x]..."

Propose is the most formal. You propose to your girlfriend that the pair of you get married; it's unlikely that you would suggest the same thing. The best working definition of propose I can think of is "to make a formal submission for appraisal." This is why researches write proposals for research funding and not suggestions.

Does that help?

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