The following is an extract from a passage, the emboldened sentence being the phrase of interest:

Coming in a minimalistic white pouch, the meal-replacement powder blends things like rice, peas and flaxseed. Add water, shake it up, and there’s your lunch, dinner or breakfast, or all three. I ordered a week’s supply, telling friends about my exciting discovery. Comments ranged from outraged to encouraging (‘this makes a lot of sense’). My mum suggested I just ate a banana.

Although it sounds harmonious, I'm interested in knowing why exactly the word "ate" was chosen to be used as opposed to its present-tense counterpart (eat). Which grammar rule has a hand in this and where can I read more about it?

EDIT: To clarify, this has been taken from a CAIE (Cambridge) examination question insert. The entire passage (text A) can be found on page 2 of this document (and the sentence on line 10).

  • 6
    It sounds wrong to me - I would use eat. Right or not, I would imagine it was chosen because the writer thought it was correct and/or liked the sound of it.
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 3:13
  • 4
    What is the intent of the passage? Is their mother encouraging them to eat a banana, or suggesting that they already did?
    – Barmar
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 5:48
  • 3
    I don't find the tense at all odd. The anecdote is told in the past tense (I ordered... Comments ranged... My mum suggested...) She probably said "Why don't you eat a banana?", but in reported speech this becomes 'ate'. Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 9:03
  • 4
    Frankly, I don't think that the relative clause would be in the past. I suggest you leave later. I suggested you leave later.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 16:41
  • 3
    @Lambie this is an extract taken from a Cambridge exam paper. In British English the subjunctive is rarely used beyond fixed phrases such as "God save the queen" and "be that as it may". People will say something similar to “He suggested that she talked to her boss” which I know is anathema to many American speakers.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 10:11

3 Answers 3


I was going to write up an answer citing The Cambridge Grammar of The English Language (by Huddleston and Pullum) on what H&P call covert mandatives. But I found out that @Araucaria already wrote an excellent answer on ELL more than three years ago.

I suggest you go read that answer. [subjunctive or covert mandative!]

One notable point of the answer along with the comments is that although H&P claims "Clear cases of the covert construction are fairly rare", which claim is inclusive of British English usage, the actual British English corpus data suggests that covert mandatives are more productive than should-mandatives (...that I should just eat a banana) as well as subjunctive mandatives (...that I just eat a banana) . [Note in this sentence "are more productive" is not a covert mandative.]

This corpus data seems to be in line with my own limited exposure to British English where I've noticed some British prime ministers and politicians use covert mandatives in their public speeches.

So I find it perfectly fine for a test based on British English to use covert mandatives.

  • I'm confused—does this or the linked answer address the choice of tense between "ate" and "eat"? Or is this just addressing the omission of "should"? The focus of the OP questions seems to be on "ate." Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 3:15
  • @AndyBonner Have you even read the linked answer? The linked answer does address the past tense use in the that-clause when the main verb is also the past tense. And that's called 'covert mandatives'.
    – JK2
    Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 3:28
  • You’re right, I read it too quickly. Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 3:38
  • You either have to use should eat or eat. "ate" is not an option in any English.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 17:42
  • 1
    @Lambie Says who?
    – JK2
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 3:43

By instinct, I would not use ate in that sentence.

British English prefers the structure with should + infinitive after suggest in the past. Cambridge does not even record the use of past tense after suggested:

Suggest + that-clause When we suggest an action to someone, we can use a that-clause. In informal situations, that is often left out:

  • I suggest (that) you leave here around four o’clock. The traffic gets very bad from about 4.30 onwards.

When suggest is in the past, we can use should in the that-clause:

  • Her doctor suggested that she should reduce her working hours and take more exercise.

However, the use of past tense after suggested is not banned. On Englishgrammar you will find a description of how the verb suggest behaves. Among other things it says:

When the verb in the main clause is in the present tense, we can use a present tense in the that-clause after suggest. When the verb in the main clause is in the past tense, a past tense is possible in the that-clause as well.

  • His doctor suggests that he stops smoking.
  • His doctor suggested that he stopped smoking.

In both these examples that can be omitted.

At the question if the sentence

The boss suggested we left early yesterday.

is correct, BBC answers:

It is perfectly correct. You could also say:

  • The boss suggested (that) we leave early.
  • The boss suggested (that) we should leave early.

All these forms are possible with little or no difference in nuance, although the subjunctive form, suggested we leave, is a touch more formal.

There is yet another site that states that past simple is correct in British English after suggested:

In British English, we may use both the present simple and past simple tenses.

  • Mark suggested that I called him.

All that being said, I think your sentence may well be called a covert mandative, but it can also be reported speech at the same time. Gngram finds instances of past after suggested, so it does exist. If the mother said

I suggest you just eat a banana.

the reported speech can occur as

My mum suggested I just ate a banana.

although according to most grammars the only options of reported speech are considered the following

  • My mum suggested I just eat a banana.


  • My mum suggested I should just eat a banana.
  • What do you mean the OP's sentence could be reported speech (as opposed to a covert mandative)? I'm asking this because you're implying that covert mandatives and reported speeches are mutually exclusive, which they aren't. Covert, subjunctive or should, all mandatives can occur after a reporting verb such as suggest, order, demand, etc.
    – JK2
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 5:01
  • @JK2 Yes, you are right, I should add "at the same time". Will edit.
    – fev
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 10:45

[Why was] "ate" was chosen to be used as opposed to its present-tense counterpart (eat).

It is reported speech. Your mum actually said "Why don't you just eat a banana?"


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