I don't understand the use of a definite article in this phrase. Isn't the meaning the same in both cases?

  • Basically, yes. Leaving out the article makes it unidiomatic, but I can't think of any difference in meaning it would entail (except for the entirely different interpretation “the benefit of being capable of doubt”, which is irrelevant here). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 15 '15 at 21:01
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    It is derived from a legal definition: In law, benefit of the doubt means that a defendant is considered innocent and acquitted by the jury if his or her guilt has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. If having examined all the evidence during legal proceedings in a criminal court of law, a juror still entertains a degree of doubt as to the guilt of the accused person, the juror finds in favour of the defendant and pronounces him or her not guilty. – user66974 Sep 15 '15 at 21:04
  • "The benefit of doubt" may be an incorrect analogy with the phrase "for the avoidance of doubt" (where "doubt" without a definite article means "any uncertainty or ambiguity that may arise"). The legal phrase "benefit of the doubt" is referring to one specific doubt, i.e., did the accused person do what was alleged, or not. – alephzero Sep 15 '15 at 22:14
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    @Josh61 You should make that an answer, that's a great angle that I've never thought about – Dan Gayle Sep 15 '15 at 22:38
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    I believe what some of the others are trying to say is that we are not just referring to any doubt but rather the specific doubtfulness the jurors feel when presented with insufficient evidence. Incidentally, outside of legal contexts this phrase makes very little sense because similar to Chasly's sentiment, there is no known benefit inherently related to doubt and I would much rather that people said something more along the lines of "The benefit of our belief." – Tonepoet Sep 17 '15 at 15:37

the benefit of the doubt

This expression is used when there is an existing doubt that is being referred to. The doubt may be explicit or it may be implicit but all parties concerned will know that there is some specific doubt. The use of 'the' indicates that specific doubt.

The benefit is usually belief or trust. In a competition it could additionally be the awarding of points.

For example

A: "Did you steal the money?"

B: "No I didn't"

A: "Well all right, I can't prove it so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt."

In the above highly simplified exchange, A had a suspicion (a doubt) about whether B had committed an offence. Because A cannot prove anything, the benefit is that A will not prosecute (or jail or punish) B.

the benefit of doubt

Here we seem to be saying that there is some benefit in doubting. That is a strange concept. It is more difficult to come up with a plausible explanation as to what the benefit might be. Here's the best I can come up with.

"Why do you always avoid watching the news when the football is on later?"

"Because I don't want to find out the score before I watch the match."

"So the benefit of not knowing is that you can enjoy the match more?"

"Yes, the benefit of doubt in such circumstances is that I can watch as though the match is playing live."

That is a plausible scenario and lots of people do that. However, the standard expression 'benefit of the doubt' would be inappropriate (or at least very confusing) in that case.

  • "The use of 'the' indicates that specific doubt." I think you're wrong. The use of 'the' indicates here the concept of doubt in general. It neither indicates any specific doubt nor non-specific. In 'the benefit of doubt' we have a verb used as a noun so no article was used. – Pete Apr 13 at 22:30

As written, "the benefit of the doubt" employs parallel structure, which makes a phrase more musical and more memorable (as does alliteration). Also, by making "the doubt" a specific one by using the definite article, the speaker is referring to the doubt that the subject is guilty, not to all or any doubt.

  • Nice answer, +1. Welcome to the site! – anongoodnurse Sep 16 '15 at 0:04

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