Follow Suit

Have you ever wondered where we get the English idiom to follow suit? Samantha Enslen looks into the origin and meaning.

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
2-minute read

follow suit

Have you ever been uncertain about how to act in a new situation? Ever thought you’d see what others were doing—and then do the same? If you have, you’ve done what card players have been doing for years. You’ve “followed suit.”

To “follow suit” means to imitate someone’s actions, as in Emma started her homework right after school; Carrie grabbed her laptop and followed suit

The term comes from card games that require players to play a card of the same suit as the person before them. In Uno, for example, if the person before you plays green, you can play green. In crazy eights, if the person before you plays a heart, you can play a heart. And so on.

As early as the mid-1800s, the term was being used both in card games and in the metaphorical sense

The Standard Hoyle from 1887 describes the rules of pinochle like this: “When a card of any other suit excepting trumps is played, a player is not compelled to go over it; but must follow suit if possible; if he can’t follow suit, he must trump it; if he can neither follow suit nor trump it, he can play any card he chooses.”

And an 1852 article in the New York Times describes a “laughable scene” featuring a man who’d been sold a fake steamship ticket. Spotting the chap who had sold the fake tickets, “he leaped off the vessel and seizing him by the throat, demanded the return of his money, which was instantly forked over.” 

The thief then made a speedy exit, the article says, fearing that other victims “would follow suit.” 

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or tweeting @DragonflyEdit.


The Standard Hoyle: A Complete Guide and Reliable Authority Upon All Games of Chance Or Skill Now Played in the United States, Whether of Native Origin Or Foreign Introduction. Excelsior Publishing House, 1887.  http://bit.ly/1DnrmGV (accessed March 31, 2015). 

Ammer, Christine. Follow suit. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

More Frauds Upon Californians. The New York Times, April 1, 1852. http://nyti.ms/1FeAR8M (accessed March 31, 2015).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.