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I often see questions on Stack Exchange sites which I presume are written by non-native English speakers who use the word "doubt" in place of the word "question". Is this a case of misunderstanding the correct meaning or are people being taught that this is correct usage?

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Interesting. Can you provide a link or two, so we can at least guess what those people's native language is? –  RegDwigнt Sep 2 '10 at 21:19
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After browsing through the first five pages, the country that comes up most often is India. I'm sure our Indian contributors will shed some light on this. –  RegDwigнt Sep 2 '10 at 21:41
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Very good question. I have observed this for many years on international tech mailing lists. It seems to come mostly from the Indian subcontinent. So it may be a specific linguistic issue relative to the languages used there, or it could be a cultural issue, that you would rather talk about your own feelings instead of addressing someone else. –  Peter Eisentraut Sep 4 '10 at 11:09
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Here in India, in most languages we speak (e.g. Hindi, Marathi), this is the valid and correct way it is expressed. People just translate it as it is in English! The para from the 'Vishy's Indian English Dictionary' in the answer by @cindi is very well true. –  Gopi Aug 29 '11 at 4:40

7 Answers 7

up vote 73 down vote accepted

This is Indian English. See Vishy's Indian English Dictionary.

July 12, 2006
Vishy's Indian English Dictionary: doubt

doubt. /DOWT/. A question asking for clarification. In standard English and American, the noun doubt is uncountable and refers to a lack of complete trust in something. Doubt may be expressed as simply as doubting someone's abilities or as profoundly as someone doubting their own religious faith. Not so in India. In India, doubt can be used as a countable noun. When a school teacher goes over an intricate concept in class, she invariably leaves some students with doubts in their mind about their understanding of the material just covered. Students ask her questions to get a better understanding of the concept and each such question is called a doubt. It is entirely normal to hear a statement like "I have just one doubt, miss" or "If you have any doubts before the exam tomorrow, come see me in the staff room". The doubts in the aforementioned sentences are not as much rooted in a lack of faith as in a lack of understanding. Attentive readers would have encountered the Indian English sense of doubt a fair bit on online message boards in threads started by Indians. Titles such as "Visual Basic .NET/Oracle doubt" are not uncommon for threads on programming-related message boards. It is my understanding that this sense is mostly prevalent in southern India, but I could be wrong on this count.

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The linked site has gone the way of all things, unfortunately. I've changed it to point to the Web Archive instead. –  Marthaª Mar 21 '11 at 22:51
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Is it actually taught as correct? –  Craig Apr 12 '11 at 20:55
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this sense is mostly prevalent in southern India <-- I am from that country and this is prevalent nearly all over India. Doubt isn't the only word which sounds unusual to most people outside India - prepone is also used widely and accepted as an antonym to postpone. Nothing wrong in it. It does make sense even though it might not be in Oxford of Webster dictionary –  Manish Sinha Aug 29 '11 at 6:12
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This used to baffle me when I saw it on forums, until an Indian friend explained to me that the origin was "I have a doubt about my understanding". In any case, we've dealt with British English vs American English for so long, it really shouldn't be a surprise that "Indian English" is starting to go off in its own direction, too. –  Jay Dec 8 '11 at 15:11
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@Chris Jester-Young: I didn't mean to invoke prescriptivism by saying "valid". But note this fails the descriptivist test (i.e. empirical usage), too, as speakers of neither British nor American English ever (to the best of my knowledge) say "doubt" instead of "question". As the accepted answer says, "This is Indian English". –  user359996 Feb 22 '12 at 22:08

A native English speaker does not recognize "doubt" as a synonym for "question". The examples given (like "Doubt about TinyMCE content css"), no matter how prevalent, are awkward. Even if it can be justified by picking a fitting definition entry, it's not something we would ever say. We understand it, but we also understand when a French person says "Let me explain you something".

Saying "question" instead of "doubt" is a better choice.

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In most cases when this happens the person is really a non-native English speaker as you said.

In some languages that grew from Latin the word that is used for doubt can also be used for question. Dúvida is the Portuguese for doubt, but it can also be used as question. For example, when kids at school say to the teacher Eu tenho uma dúvida (which word-by-word would translate as "I have a doubt"), they mean that they want to ask a question to the teacher about what has been taught. And if I go to a store in Brazil and say Eu tenho uma dúvida sobre esse produto ("I have a doubt about this product" in word-by-word translation), what I mean is that I want to make a question about the product.

The same happens with duda, which is the Spanish word for doubt. It may also be the case in other languages, but I'm not sure.

Therefore, when you give a presentation and native Portuguese speakers say "I have doubts about what you said", don't think that they don't quite believe in what you said. They may just have questions to ask you.

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+1 Definitely a Spanish thing. Saying "tengo una duda" (I've got a doubt) when putting your hand up is a common way to make a question in class for kids. Makes me wonder about why English views interaction in terms of answering questions whereas Spanish (and Portuguese, etc.) sees it in terms of clarifying doubts. –  CesarGon Jan 15 '11 at 18:27
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@Cesar - Interesting, I took Spanish at an American high school and was taught by a native Spanish speaker to say "tengo una pregunta", which translates to "I've got a question". We learned 'duda' as 'doubt', and used it in the American English sense of 'doubt'. Whoops! –  Kevin Vermeer Oct 5 '11 at 12:02
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@KevinVermeer: "tengo una pregunta" is perfectly valid too. But I find "tengo una duda" more idiomatic; this may of course change depending on country and region. –  CesarGon Oct 5 '11 at 13:55
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I am with CesarGon on this. As a native Spanish speaker I find "tengo una duda" more natural for a school context. –  yms Oct 6 '11 at 14:35
    
It's a Portuguese influence in this case, not Spanish (as such, if you see Portuguese and Spanish as separate languages rather than as dialects of the same language with an artificial political boundary between them). Not only was Portugal influential in India before the English got there, there are Portuguese-based creoles still spoken in areas like Goa. –  bye Jun 29 at 1:53

Looking at some of the questions listed in mmyers's suggested search on Google, I'd suggest that "doubt" is being as a synonym for "uncertainty", which is valid.

For example:

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When I read those questions titles, I interpret them as I have a doubt about TinyMCE content CSS, for example. –  kiamlaluno Sep 3 '10 at 0:07
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I think the point of the question is not that this usage is technically invalid, but that it is very uncommon among native speakers but is somehow consistently used by many nonnative speakers. –  Peter Eisentraut Sep 30 '10 at 10:27
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@Peter: my answer is stating the exact opposite, namely, that this is perfectly valid, and that as a native speaker, I could see myself writing this. –  Steve Melnikoff Sep 30 '10 at 14:12
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Yes, but the question is about "doubt" as a synonym for "question", which is not quite the same. –  Peter Eisentraut Sep 30 '10 at 16:43
    
It is perfectly correct, it's just not a structure a native speaker would be likely to use. "He proceeded upon his legs" is perfectly correct as an alternative to "He walked". –  David Schwartz Aug 21 '11 at 9:03

I'm not a language expert, but I've been dealing with a lot of those doubts…

By opening with "I have a doubt", you don't simply state "I have a question; …" followed by question's content, but instead you claim that "I understand all this, but …" before bringing to discussion a particularly unclear aspect of the topic. The construct as such is therefore not good or bad, nor is it in any way rooted in Latin as suggested above (my native language is of Latin origin and we don't/can't abuse the "doubt" either in original or in translations, while the Indians do it without having the Latin heritage). It is all about the correct usage in a given context.

The expectation when using this construct is that what follows the "I have a doubt", either the question itself or the whole conversation about it, should show that indeed you have gone to the process of analysing the problem at hand on your own, and you are stuck in a detail for which you need clarification. However, you will find that many of those asking have no idea about the big picture either and haven't tried to solve the problem on their own, and this is why you tend to answer them "No dude, you don't have a doubt, you simply have no clue about this subject". It is in such context that the use of "doubt" stands out and annoys in the conversation.

Now whether this is a vocabulary issue (unlikely) or it can be explained in the Indian context by a tendency to 'fake' knowledge by using "doubt" to make the question asked appear as a minor clarification request, that I leave to others to sort out.

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I'm sure you didn't mean to, but you do sound borderline racist in that last paragraph. –  AakashM Sep 14 '11 at 11:54
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@AakashM I am not so sure he did not mean it... I would downvote this if I could –  yms Oct 6 '11 at 14:25

I often see Japanese people using "doubt" instead of "suspicion", and wouldn't be too surprised if they used it when they meant "question". My suspicion is that the Japanese use the same word for both "doubt" and "suspicion", and therefore don't know when they ought to use "suspicion" in English.

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I'm sure I remember reading something about doubt being used this way in parts of northern England in times past. My memory, however, is vague.

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You have a doubt? :) –  Benjol Oct 19 '10 at 5:44

protected by RegDwigнt Feb 22 '12 at 22:26

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