I, for some reason, can’t figure out the grammar of the following phrase - “What’s that supposed to mean?”...

Why isn’t it “What does that suppose to mean?” or “What’s that suppose to mean?” I know it’s a set phrase, but I still can’t fathom how is it grammatically correct, am I missing something? Please help!


The expression is "What is that supposed to mean?", and it means what it says: What does "that" mean, according to your supposition/implication?

Understand that "what's" is a contraction for either "what does" or "what is" -- eg, "What's up, doc?"


If I write “Life is a bowl of cherries”, the meaning is not immediately clear to you. You may imagine that I have a hidden meaning.

But you are not sure of my meaning (I may just mean “Life is simple”, or “Life is fruitful”). You are not sure of what I suppose it to mean to you(i.e. what metaphor I suppose I am creating for you to understand). And therefore, you ask me “What is that (my statement) supposed (by me) to mean (to you)?.

The reply would be that I suppose it to mean to you that “Life is very pleasant and easy to enjoy”.


The semantic of what you consider to be the proper way to express this idea is actually awful, I have to say. The verb "to suppose" is used with subjects that can only be human beings: it's a verb that means "to think", roughly; therefore, in this sentence, where the subject is "that", and we know that this pronoun represents a thing, an idea, a fact, etc. but not a human being, the result is that we imply that inanimates do think, which is nonsense.

This phrase is in fact an idiom (OALD).

  • be supposed to do/be something ​ to be expected or required to do/be something according to a rule, a custom, an arrangement, etc.
    What am I supposed to do?
    You're supposed to buy a ticket, but not many people do.
    I thought we were supposed to be paid today.
    The engine doesn't sound like it's supposed to.
    You were supposed to be here an hour ago!
    Oops—that wasn't supposed to happen.
    How was I supposed to know you were waiting for me?
    ‘Yes and no.’ ‘What is that supposed to mean?’ (= showing that you are annoyed)

Yes, you're missing something.  You're missing the fact that the agent is supposed to be missing.  That is, we have reason to suppose that the agent will be unmentioned.

* What does that suppose to mean?
   What is that supposed to mean?

Here, we see a difference between active and passive voices.

In the first, whatever that is, it supposes something.  That something which it supposes is missing.  How the "to mean" is meant to attach to the rest of this clause is uncertain.  This isn't a coherent sentence.

In the second, we don't know who supposes, and we just don't care.  To put it in the active voice, someone (maybe everyone) supposes that to mean ... and we've reach the heart of the question:

What does everyone suppose that to mean?

or maybe even

What could anyone suppose that to mean?

Anyone, everyone, someone, just you or just me -- the agent isn't relevant to the question.  We have reason to suppose that the question will be cast in the passive voice.

That is to say, it is supposed to be a passive-voice construction.

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