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I have never used doubt or suspect properly before. Now I understand that they seem to bear quite the opposite meanings in a sentence.

For example,

Everybody believes him, but I suspect he is lying


I doubt he is telling the truth.

Such pairs of words can be really challenging for non-native speakers to distinguish. What's worse, misuses of them could result in communication disasters.

Why is this pair of words so confusing? Are there any more example pairs of this nature?

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closed as off topic by kiamlaluno, RiMMER, onomatomaniak, Daniel, Jasper Loy Oct 27 '11 at 21:21

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I'm not sure what you mean by 'pairs of this nature'. Opposites? – Sam Oct 26 '11 at 19:20
But to people who know these words, they don't seem to be synonyms at all, with or without context. To address one of your comments below: There is no discernible phenomenon here, other than "Terry finds this pair of words confusing". So your question amounts to "what other pairs of words would I find confusing?" Even if this question were allowed by Stack Exchange policy (which it's not), it still wouldn't be a very practical one. – John Y Oct 26 '11 at 21:42
@John Y: I think you are over-hasty. Per my answer, in the specific context of suspecting/doubting a person, the two words superficially act like synonyms. – FumbleFingers Oct 27 '11 at 3:50
@FumbleFingers: Fair enough. But in your answer you used them in a sentence, and they did not magically become antonyms. Perhaps the OP is then after "pairs of words that have different meanings in different contexts", which is an almost equally impractical question. – John Y Oct 27 '11 at 4:54
I've voted to reopen because I think it's on-topic both to establish why OP conflated these two word in the first place, and to consider whether there are other antonym pairs where in some particular context we interpret them in a way that seems synonymous. The assumptions behind how we interpret words in certain contexts seem to me to be part of language usage. – FumbleFingers Oct 28 '11 at 17:39
up vote 8 down vote accepted

As others point out, you suspect what you believe, but you doubt what you disbelieve. I think OP's problem revolves around the fact that...

I'm innocent, man! You can't suspect me!


I'm innocent, man! You can't doubt me!

...mean exactly the same. That's because the above suspect/doubt distinction applies to facts we think are true or false. But idiomatically we suspect a person when we believe his guilt, but we doubt that person when we disbelieve his innocence.

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+1 Genius! Exactly what I have been looking for! Thanks! – Terry Li Oct 27 '11 at 3:33
@Terry: I can't think of any other pair of words like this. You certainly don't have to worry about learning a long list of them! – FumbleFingers Oct 27 '11 at 3:47

If you're having trouble distinguishing them, just try to remember that suspect is "positive" and doubt is negative. Like this:

I suspect he was sleeping with my sister.

= I think he was sleeping with my sister.

On the other hand:

I doubt he was sleeping with my sister.

= I think he was not sleeping with my sister.

I really don't think there's anything more to it. Of course it's good to know when to use which, but it can't be explained by a few rules. Just listen to English speakers and try to pick up which word suits what situation.

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Thanks for suggesting how to distinguish them, but my question is, what are other pairs of words that might confuse us like these two do. – Terry Li Oct 26 '11 at 19:18
I don't think such a question is on-topic here. It's very subjective and difficult to tell what others might not understand. Not very constructive at all. – RiMMER Oct 26 '11 at 19:20
I assume many such pairs exist and want to collect some examples in order to raise my awareness about such language phenomenon. – Terry Li Oct 26 '11 at 19:30
@TerryLiYifeng From the faq: You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Your question seems like "I am curious to know if there other of such words." – kiamlaluno Oct 26 '11 at 19:38
@kiamlaluno I'd like to look into this language phenomenon. But without more than one example it's just not possible for me to gain insight. I am looking more for help with understanding the phenomenon than purely for other people's vocabulary. – Terry Li Oct 26 '11 at 19:48

Not a little vs. Not a bit. Maybe.

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This is not a bad attempt at answering the question! – John Y Oct 27 '11 at 4:56

I suspect this is one of those language rules that requires a bit of practice; in fact I doubt there is any more effective way of learning it. What is common to both terms in that sentence is that I was stating a subjective opinion or belief about something. In the affirmative, I believe this will require practice and in the negative, I do not believe there is a good alternative to practice. When I suspect something, I have a suspicion about it - a belief. When I doubt something I have a sense it is not to be believed.

FumbleFingers example of "Don't suspect me" and "Don't doubt me" is brilliant and it illustrates why these "opposites" can be confusing. Suspect has a more complex use than doubt. The word suspect is a verb, a noun and an adjective - and in it's most common use it indicates something negative. A "Suspect" is a person suspected of committing a crime. We find someone's intentions to be "suspect". To say we suspect something is true shouldn't automatically indicate a negative tone, but it's related word "suspicious" almost always implies something negative - and that's not always the case. For instance, I could say, "I suspect you are smarter than you think", or "I have a suspicion you're going to be surprised by how high you score". Neither are negative beliefs. That said, I could just as easily say I had a "sneaking suspicion" you'll score higher than you think. That's sort of like a secret belief but there's a sinister tone to it.
The word Doubt is far more straightforward.

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+1 for pointing out that suspect can be "a verb, a noun and an adjective". That in itself should be enough to suggest it's a more "complex" word. And no-one could argue with "suspicious" almost always implies something negative. Grammatically and semantically we can always say I suspect he's honest, or I doubt he's lying, but in practice it's usually the other way around. On average, as you say, sentences using these words tend to have a sinister/negative tone. – FumbleFingers Oct 28 '11 at 22:27

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