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My English tutor told me that only people can be the subject of "inform", but I have seen in many cases that inform is used with the subject as "evidence", "studies", "practice", and so on. Shall I consider these ways of using "inform" incorrect and avoid doing so?

Here's the original sentence:

Research on shame has informed us that...

And my teacher suggested:

Research on shame has determined/established that...

I feel hesitant to use the words she suggested, because "determine/establish" means something is settled and agreed upon, which is different from what "inform" means.

  • Now that I see your sentence, I can see why your teacher said what she said. I’ve added my answer with some documentation and alternatives. – tchrist Sep 6 '15 at 0:32
  • @tchrist What about "suggest?" Is this another word in the same category? I wanted to say "research suggests..." but then wondered. – michael_timofeev Sep 6 '15 at 6:31
  • @tchrist I appreciate your suggestions but I'd like to find out whether it is correct to use this combination research informs.... I thought I could until I read your latest comment, where you wrote I agree with your teacher that research doesn’t inform you of anything. But in the example given by Kirk Woll, research is the subject of inform. So, just to clarify, do you think it's fine to use the combination of "research informs"? – fishbean Sep 6 '15 at 9:02
  • Short questions can have no good answer. The example you're talking about is using it to mean shape, not to mean impart knowledge of. – tchrist Sep 6 '15 at 13:48
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EDIT

Based on your example sentence, it makes more sense that your teacher had other suggestions to offer you, why she said it didn’t make sense for research to inform you of anything — it’s not like you got a letter in the mail with sudden news of something. Just looking around for something never informs anyone of anything, and research is looking around.

Besides her suggestions, several simpler versions might work, too:

  • Research on shame has told us that. . . .

  • Research on shame has taught us that. . . .

  • Research on shame has shown us that. . . .

  • Research on shame has suggested that. . . .

  • Research on shame has indicated that. . . .

Your example falls under this OED sense, with bold emphasis mine:

  1. a. To impart knowledge of some particular fact or occurrence to (a person); to tell (one) of or acquaint (one) with something; to apprise. Const. of, about, on, or with subordinate clause; rarely †with, †in, or second object. The prevailing modern sense.

This is the prevailing modern sense, and it is the one that applies here. Here is a citation for the normal use:

  • 1841 D’Israeli Amen. Lit. (1867) 360 ― Ascham informs us that··Elizabeth understood Greek better than the canons of Windsor.

Yes, that has a human agent. It is possible for a notice or letter to inform you of something as well, although one again posits an ultimately human agent at the other end of that missive. In contrast, a dirt stain could not inform you of something; that doesn’t make sense.

I agree with your teacher that research doesn’t inform you of anything, and suggest that if you do not care for any of her suggestions because they are too strong, you could try some of my weaker versions.


Old Post

It’s currently trendy, although by no means new in its own right, to use inform as a fancy Latin synonym for shape. In many ways this is a throw-back to older obsolete senses which are no longer used. That means it strikes some people as funny.

The OED arranges the many senses for this word into four principle groups:

  1. To give form to, put into form or shape.
  2. To give ‘form’ or formative principle to: see form sb. 4.
  3. To give form to the mind, to discipline, instruct, teach (a person), to furnish with knowledge.
  4. To instruct in (a thing), impart the knowledge of, make known.

The last of those is the safest.

This Google N-gram of inform our ideas shows just how recently that phrase has taken off:

Ngram of inform our ideas

Notice how it is virtually absent from the record until its meteoric rise just a few years ago. That’s why it’s a trendy thing to say, practically a cliché. If this was the way you were trying to use it, I can understand why your teacher might have steered you away from it.

Whether you should use it that way or not is up to you; it may bother some people or confuse others. If you restrict your use of inform to people telling other people something, you will not run that risk.

  • 1
    “To give form to the mind” — Ooh, brain PlayDoh, neat! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 5 '15 at 21:03
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, Not PayDoh but Plato. – Brian Donovan Sep 5 '15 at 21:53
  • Perhaps I'm not being clear or I don't understand the Ngram graph, but I was wondering about the "subject" of inform, not the "object". Does the Ngram that shows "inform our ideas" mean "Our ideas can inform..."? – fishbean Sep 5 '15 at 22:59
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    @fishbean The point of the ngram graph is that this is not a traditional way to use the word inform. It is a recent fad. Using it this way is both metaphorical and poetic. Like saying "a little bird told me". You're breaking a rule that many people break. It's better to break these rules intentionally, rather than out of ignorance. – candied_orange Sep 6 '15 at 3:36
  • It would be interesting to know why it took off in the 60s. Also why it wasn't used prior to that. – michael_timofeev Sep 6 '15 at 6:35
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Your English teacher is wrong. "Inform" can be used in many contexts in which the subject is not a person -- exactly as you've suspected. Probably, your teacher was trying to help by providing a rule that is usually correct. Most of the time, "inform" should be directed toward a person.

But that being said, it is perfectly grammatical to say, for example, that "the new research has informed the existing argument."

  • The thing is that most people are unfamiliar with this sense, so it makes some sense that the teacher is trying to steer students away from it. – tchrist Sep 5 '15 at 21:57
  • But it is perfectly grammatical to say 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.' It is perfectly acceptable to say "The new research has informed the existing argument." – Edwin Ashworth Sep 5 '15 at 22:22
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    @tchrist I am deeply troubled by your comment. When you say 'most people', you may be right. But then 'most people' - such as those who read tabloid newspapers, and think that Plato was a Brazillian footballer (Roddy Doyle) - don't speak English very well. So if teachers are to start teaching to the lowest common denominator of spoken English in the community, what will be the result? Only, surely, the democratisation of illiteracy. – WS2 Sep 5 '15 at 22:33
  • @WS2 Please see my edit with the usage data. – tchrist Sep 5 '15 at 22:51
  • @tchrist The idiom has undoubtedly shown startling growth in recent years - a bit like the Chinese economy. But to me it is a welcome addition. The new research has informed the existing argument (Edwin Ashworth) seems to me concise and articulate. What other words might one use to replace informed, that mean the same thing? – WS2 Sep 5 '15 at 23:01
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Merriam Webster supports the view that you can use inform in the second sense that you mention.

2 a : to give character or essence to [the principles which inform modern teaching]

b : to be the characteristic quality of : animate [the compassion that informs her work]

Merriam Webster

I sympathise with your teacher and wonder if this usage is quite recent. However the dictionary wins in an argument.

  • I remember it from of yore. Well, the 70s. This is a fun Google Ngram. Though this is perhaps better evidence. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 5 '15 at 22:02
  • @EdwinAshworth I’m pretty sure that none of these fancy senses applies here because the asker has shown us the sentence using inform in the prevailing modern sense, and it is now more obvious why their teacher thought it didn’t sound right. – tchrist Sep 6 '15 at 0:33
  • @tchrist Strange – I'm looking at OP's actual question: ' ... I have seen in many cases that inform is used with the subject as "evidence", "studies", "practice", and so on. Shall I consider these ways of using "inform" incorrect and avoid doing so?' Aren't you? – Edwin Ashworth Sep 6 '15 at 15:41
  • @EdwinAshworth I rather don’t feel like getting into a correctness war here. – tchrist Sep 6 '15 at 15:43
  • @tchrist I wonder why. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 6 '15 at 15:46

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