I have a question about "subject to":

  1. He is subject to depression.
  2. He is subject to speculation.

The first sentence means he tends to be affected by depression. But I am not sure about the second sentence. Does it mean he speculates about some matter, or that people speculate about him?

Sentence 2 is inspired by this:

Amazon has long been subject to speculation of a move into bricks and mortar. It isn't the first "pure play" online retailer to mull over a physical presence either. Ebay has also been linked with a store presence, and has even experimented with short-lease "pop up shops" to gauge interest. But if rumours surrounding Amazon are true, the online giant could be about to make the first move by snapping up stores from RadioShack, which is seeking bankruptcy protection. Such a move, if true, will cause sleepless nights for the rest of the retail sector.

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    Did you come up with sentence 2 yourself? It seems odd. – snailplane May 10 '15 at 4:22
  • @snailboat I edited my question. – meatie May 10 '15 at 4:32
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    Really it should be 'the subject of speculation' - whoever wrote it seems to have their cart & horse in the wrong order, but it feels like fairly standard reporterese to do it that way - it pushes the speculation onto an unspecified 'they' - lots of others who are doing the speculating, with Amazon being the subject of that; it's not the simplest [or best] way to write it, but it's seen a lot in newspapers etc. – gone fishin' again. May 10 '15 at 8:09
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    Yeah, I would have written, "Amazon has long been the subject of speculation about a move into ..." – Jim May 11 '15 at 3:23
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    @Tetsujin - You are too nice. OP's misunderstanding is caused by poor writing and equally poor copy editing. – Ast Pace Jul 11 '15 at 23:00

This is an interesting question. To be subject to can either mean to undergo, suffer, experience, or be affected by or to be prone to. In the former case the subject is receiving the action, and in the latter case the subject is performing the action. In the case of depression, the meanings are interchangeable:

He suffers from depression.

He is prone to depression.

This may be because to be depressed can either be interpreted as an active verb (something the person is doing) or passive (something that is happening to the person, as in "This depresses me"). Maybe someone else can shed some more light on this.

This is contrasted with to be subject to speculation, where there are two distinct possible meanings:

He is the subject of speculation.

He is prone to speculation.

The first sentence means people are speculating about him, and the second means that he frequently speculates. Though they are kind of opposites, both are legitimate interpretations of "He is subject to speculation". The example paragraph about Amazon uses the phrase in the sense of being speculated about. As the comments indicate, the phrase is ambiguous and possibly confusing or misleading.

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"Amazon has long been subject to speculation of a move into bricks and mortar." The proper fate of a sentence like this is to be taken out and sho; its author should be warned of a like fate for repeat offences. But instead, you make it the subject of idle speculation. Get out and smell the roses!

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The sentence

Amazon has long been subject to speculation of a move into bricks and mortar.

is awkwardly worded. The intended sense of the sentence is that people have been speculating for a long time about whether Amazon will open brick-and-mortar (that is, real-world) stores in addition to maintaining its online marketplace. To convey that idea clearly, you might put it this way:

Amazon has long been the subject of speculation about [or regarding] its possible expansion into brick-and-mortar stores.

Admittedly, if you're the subject of speculation, you must in some sense be subject (that is, susceptible) to speculation. But the crux of the sentence that the poster cites is not that Amazon is (and for a long time has been) peculiarly subject to such speculation; it's that people are (and for a long time have been) making its rumored plans for real-world retail expansion the subject of speculation. That being the case, the writer did a poor job of expressing the main point.

The writer's choice of "subject to" in place of "the subject of" is not entirely explicable, but I suspect that it may have been influenced by a desire to avoid repeating the preposition of in the phrase

the subject of speculation of a move

If so, the writer's fastidiousness on this point was a mistake because the phrase "speculation of a move" is at least as ill suited to the sentence as "subject to" is. When discussing swirling rumors or rampant speculation, English-language writers today are considerably more likely to use the phrase "speculation about a [subject]" (red line below) than to use the phrase "speculation of a [subject]" (blue line below), as this Ngram chart for the period 1900–2005 suggests:

Since the early 1970s, "speculation about a" shows up as being more common than "speculation of a" even though the latter phrase collects matches of the forms "speculation of a [person speculating]" (for example, "speculation of a later editor") and "speculation of a [type or kind]"(for example, "speculation of a scientific character") as well as matches of the form "speculation of a [thing being speculated about]" (as in "speculation of a mutator phenotype"). In contrast, "speculation about a" much more narrowly collects matches of the form "speculation about a [thing being speculated about]" 9as in "speculation about a presidential bid").

Of course, speculation about why a writer makes poor word choices is just speculation. The key point, in my view, is that "speculation about a move" is something that Amazon was more meaningfully "the subject of" than "subject to."

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subject to = governed by, affected by

a|the subject of = a|the topic of

When something is subject to speculation it is a topic where doubt, not certainty, reigns. Speculation is compulsory as there is no solid proof that would permit a firm conclusion to be drawn.

The length of time that Jesus was scourged is unknown and subject to speculation

The issue of weapons of mass destruction is still subject to speculation.

One is the biochemical basis of their formation and their role in nature, which is still subject to speculation.


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"He is subject to speculation." is grammatically correct. The reader might assume that it means others are speculating about the subject, but it is written to impart that the subject himself speculates or is indecisive. The same is true of the Amazon news article. The given context reinforces the fact that it was Amazon, as an entity, that was speculating about opening stores. It was not others that were speculating about Amazon. This might be considered stylistically awkward, but it is not grammatically incorrect.

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