I have always thought the antonym of "guilty" is "innocent", but apparently it's just "not guilty". Even juries seem to agree.

But why? Aren't they antonyms? Or is there a subtlety I'm missing here?

  • There is a distinct difference between being not guilty or free of criminal culpability and innocent. If you kill someone in self defense, you are not guilty of any criminal offense in most U.S. states, however you are not innocent.
    – crasic
    Jul 6 '11 at 6:00
  • Just to clarify: "guilty" is the antonym of "innocent", but you're asking if "innocent" is the synonym of "not guilty".
    – Hannele
    Nov 17 '11 at 15:38

Not guilty is a verdict or formal finding by the legal system that a defendant is not culpable for the crime with which the defendant was charged.

If someone charges you with a certain crime, the judge/jury are there to decide whether you are guilty, or not guilty of the crime in question. Stating that you are innocent would technically generally speak about your life and personality in a way that you've never done anything bad in life. Not guilty, on the other hand, can and is used to express specifically what you are not guilty of, for example not guilty of killing my workmate.

Therefore, the following is technically correct:

Judge: How do you plead?
You: I'm not innocent, nobody is, but I'm not guilty of what I'm charged with.

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    I see... lol, if I ever have to go to a trial (I hope not), I want to plead innocent just to see what happens. xD +1
    – user541686
    Jul 6 '11 at 0:58
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    On a similar note, is it correct to say "I am innocent of the crime"?
    – rest_day
    Jul 6 '11 at 1:05
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    @rest_day: I've never heard such a construction in legal talk, but googling it seems to return many articles where the phrase is used, but I doubt it's correct when it comes to terms of law.
    – Frantisek
    Jul 6 '11 at 1:09

From a lawyer's blog:

When I am interviewing potential clients, I hear on a regular basis that "I'm innocent". It goes in one ear and out the other with me. I don't care if you're innocent. I care if you are "Not Guilty". So what is the difference? If you are innocent, you are absolutely without fault in all aspects. You are a victim of a terrible injustice and everyone should give you their pity. Congratulations, you have it! But you still face all the consequences of being charged with a criminal offense. If you are not guilty, you perhaps did not do the crime, [or] there was no crime, [or] they arrested the wrong person, [or] they could not prove their case; any one or combination of the above can produce the "not guilty" verdict.

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    And then there's the Scottish third option: "not proven". Jul 6 '11 at 1:03
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    @Ham and Bacon: +1. So I guess we should say the defendant is "not guilty until proven guilty", eh? @RiMMER: Yeah my eyes kind of itch, but it's not that bad to make them bleed, lol.
    – user541686
    Jul 6 '11 at 1:06
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    How can people not get the difference between your and you're is still beyond my understanding. Then, he is a terrible lawyer (at least morally), as it seems. His primary objective should be to uncover the truth, not just blindly help potential criminals. Jul 6 '11 at 1:24
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    @Harrold: actually lawyers have an ethical obligations to do everything they can to help their clients, even if they know they did commit the crime. Not doing so would be considered highly unethical. He needs to uncover the truth to better help his client, but it's not the goal, it's a means to achieve the goal (help the client). Jul 6 '11 at 3:19
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    @Harrold Cavendish - TBH, most legal systems are concerned with justice not truth. As Kop stated, truth is a means to justice and is important but not the overall goal.
    – Thomas
    Jul 6 '11 at 3:58

The legal system in the US at least is founded upon the presumption of innocence. Thus the only finding a jury or judge can find in a criminal court is proof of guilt or absence of proof of guilt. A jury cannot, and should not, prove that a defendant is innocent, they need only find that they are not guilty, and then they are assumed innocent in the eyes of the law as a matter of course (whether or not they are actually innocent or not is another matter entirely).


I think you misunderstand what exactly an antonym is. It is a word that has the opposite meaning. It is not a word that means everything that isn't included in the first word.

Perhaps a Venn Diagram would help. You can consider antonyms as a Venn Diagram with two circles representing the meaning of A (Guilty) and its opposite B (Innocent). If the two words are antonyms, then in the diagram, there will be no overlap between areas A and B. They will be disjoint. (There are other conditions too, but those won't show up in a Venn Diagram).

enter image description here

However, logically we could also talk about the entire area outside of A, which would be "not guilty". Clearly this encompases the entirety of "innocent", but also some areas outside of it.



1 not guilty of a crime or offense: the arbitrary execution of an innocent man he was innocent of any fraud [predic.] (innocent of) without; lacking: a street quite innocent of bookstores [predic.] (innocent of) without experience or knowledge of: a man innocent of war's cruelties

2 [attributive] not responsible for or directly involved in an event yet suffering its consequences: an innocent bystander

3 free from moral wrong; not corrupted: an innocent child simple; naive: she is a poor, innocent young creature

4 not intended to cause harm or offense; harmless:

So the OED gives precedent to innocence in a particular sense, so it is okay to say "I'm innocent of murder", and plead one's innocence to a crime. The courtroom usage "not guilty" is perhaps a jurisprudent nod to the assumptions made amidst uncertainty: none of us are "innocent", yet we're all assumed innocent, unless shown otherwise, and so the endeavor is proving guilt. It's an indication of perspective, as I think it's just as well that defendants are defending their official state of innocence.


I recently came across the Wikipedia article about the Wicked Bible, a Bible published in 1631 containing a typographical error: they left out the word "not" in the seventh commandment: "Thou shalt commit adultery."

According to this article the omission of "not" was considered quite a common mistake in printing. There's a reference to a change in the Associated Press style guide, which until 2004 advised using "innocent" instead of "not guilty" for this very reason.


There is one situation which should be considered innocent -- free from all fault.

There are four situations which would preclude guilt. Given the question, "Did you steel my car?"

  • No, I did not steal your car (denial of assertion -- it never happened, you car was towed because of parking tickets...)
  • I did not steal you car, I borrowed it (redefinition -- you were drunk when you consented, but you still gave me your keys)
  • Yes, but I had a good reason (justification -- it was a matter of national security and I work for the FBI)
  • Impropriety of venue (Miranda rights not read, wrong district, judge is really plaintiff's brother, etc. etc.)

If any one of those arguments succeeds, then the defendant cannot be considered guilty.

As a side note, admission cascades -- justification admits definition and assertion and redefinition concedes that the defendant moved the car.

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