Play (the) devil's advocate


Senior Member
Spanish - Spain
Hi, everybody. I'm familiar with the meaning of this idiom, but I'm not that familiar with its use.
Can this idiom be used in the past tense (as in Johnny played devil's advocate and made Susie realize her plan wasn't exactly brilliant) ?

I have found some instances of its use with the future tense, as in: I'll play devil's advocate for a moment and warn against the flaws of this new method. But can you still use this idiom without for a moment (as in: Next summer, I'll play the devil's advocate and ask Mrs. Wright about the minor details of her campaign) ?

Also, is there any difference between using play devil's advocate and play the devil's advocate ?
  • JustKate

    Moderate Mod
    The two versions mean the same thing, but at least in my experience the version without the is far more common. That is what I would invariably say, and that's what I hear almost all the time. I'd recommend sticking with it.


    Senior Member
    Spanish - Spain
    Thank you, JustKate!
    Maybe someone could answer the other questions regarding the idiom's use with the past and future tenses.


    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    I don't think there is any problem using it with past, present, or future tense verbs. But I think it is an old expression. Young people may not know it. They say "Just for the sake of argument..." instead.

    More important, I think you are using it incorrectly. In 2 of your 3 examples, you think the person is wrong, and you want to argue with them to convince them they are wrong. That isn't "playing the devil's advocate". That is arguing to convince someone to change their mind.

    Saying this expression up front does not give you permission to argue with someone, while receiving none of the negative consequences of arguing.

    You "play the devil's advocate" when you agree with someone...but you want someone to take the opposite opinion, just for this conversation, solely to create an interesting discussion.


    Senior Member
    Spanish - Spain
    Thank you, dojibear. Your answer made me realize I'm not as familiar with this idiom's meaning as I thought ...

    It surprises me to know it's an old expression, because I'm currently watching an American soap opera wich aired in the late 90s and they use it quite a lot. I guess languages do evolve fast.


    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    The first of the two examples with the future form sounds reasonable to me, I'll play devil's advocate for a moment and warn against the flaws of this new method, though I would like to see the context. The second also lacks context but sounds rather odd to me.

    I certainly don't think it's going out of date as a phrase, though not everyone would understand what it means. I guess that the concept of "playing devil's advocate" will live on - at least for as long as kids continue to go to law school.

    Previous threads:
    Devil's Advocate Meaning?
    opposite of the devil's advocate
    play devil's advocate / throw a wet blanket over
    Last edited:
    < Previous | Next >