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I think doubt is a negative emotion, so I find it difficult to know what is meant by "benefit of the doubt". How does this phrase work, and how did it arise?

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the definition of benefit of the doubt –  Matt Эллен Mar 3 '12 at 22:41
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"doubt is a negative emotion". No way. Watch "Agora" for instance. –  CesarGon Mar 4 '12 at 19:16
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@Arjang, "Damage of the certainty" is more of a contrapositive than an opposite; "disadvantage of the doubt" and "benefit of the certainty" are more like opposites of "benefit of the doubt". –  jwpat7 Mar 8 '12 at 22:06
    
@jwpat7: contrapositive FTW! –  Arjang Mar 9 '12 at 7:08
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closed as general reference by Matt Эллен, aedia λ, Jasper Loy, kiamlaluno, Daniel Mar 7 '12 at 14:20

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4 Answers

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It means that when a speaker has explained something, the listener doesn't entirely believe them, but accepts their argument as they have no contrasting arguments.

"The doubt" refers to the the doubt that the listener has as to the veracity of the speakers version of events. It is negative, in that it does imply that the listener does not entirely believe the listener, but that their version of events is at least plausible.

"The benefit" refers to the fact that the listener is not entirely convinced either way, and so gives the speaker the benefit or the most positive outcome that they can, and believes them.

So the speaker gets the benefit or positive results of there being doubt as to whether the account is correct.

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Doubt is a feeling one gets when one doesn't have enough information to make a sound decision. Generally, when giving someone the benefit of the doubt, you are accepting that person's assertion(s) even though you aren't too sure as to whether or not they are true.

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Where an argument or evidence seems to be evenly balanced, to give someone the benefit of the doubt is to concede their side of the argument or their interpretation of the evidence.

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Evenly balanced or entirely absent. –  Sam Mar 4 '12 at 5:35
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Not necessarily.

Giving someone (or something) the benefit of the doubt is an idiom, so normal senses don't apply. Note that this idiom requires the before doubt, unlike (for instance) the idiom without a doubt, which requires a.

Jez and Barrie have defined the sense closely enough; the idea is that, when there is some doubt about something, then one's opinion could go either way, and that could benefit someone. Or not. If we give a person the benefit of that doubt, then we decide in their favor, pending further information.

It's always a provisional decision, and usually used as the object of the verb give.

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I disagree that this is always provisional. "The jury gave him the benefit of the doubt and found him innocent." –  Christi Mar 3 '12 at 21:58
    
@Christi I think there is always a sense that the person or people have not been convinced, which I think is what John was meaning. It may be an irrevocable decision, but there is still some doubt. –  Schroedingers Cat Mar 5 '12 at 9:01
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