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I always have the impression that "they didn't admit to a crime" tends towards implying that "they" are guilty, while the wording "they denied committing the crime" doesn't have any such bias. Is this just me or is there evidence that lots of people see it like that?

Example:

  1. Headline: "Adam Smith denies sexually assaulting Eve Miller" Subhead: "Prominent critic Sally Johnson demands him to withdraw his bid for presidency, but he refuses to do so because of unsubstantiated allegations."

  2. Headline: "Eve Miller: Adam Smith molested me!" Subhead: "Critics have demanded him to withdraw his bid for presidency. Adam Smith did not admit to the crime."

Both of those are subtly (or less subtly) biased no matter whether the intuition described in the first paragraph is true, but more so if it is.

Maybe it's because not admitting doesn't imply denial (but the accusation stands, so there is only one opinion) and denying the crime explicitly creates two opposing opinions regarding the guilt of the accused, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

  • This is a question of psychology and philosophy, not one about the English language. – Hot Licks Nov 19 '17 at 0:24
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's a question about philosophy/psychology. – Hot Licks Nov 19 '17 at 0:25
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    @HotLicks It may also be a question of law. It was a major issue in the UK in 1984, with the passage of "the Police and Criminal Evidence Act" (PACE). Whilst a suspect's time-honoured right to remain silent ("did not admit") was upheld, PACE gave the police and prosecutor, for the first time, the ability, in court, to propose an adverse inference from that silence. – WS2 Nov 19 '17 at 10:23
  • @HotLicks It can also be treated as a matter of English usage, albeit with legal and psychology considerations. – Lawrence Nov 20 '17 at 0:15
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Lack of an admission of guilt is lack of a claim of guilt. It is not a claim of non-guilt.

Denial of guilt is a claim of non-guilt; it is a claim of innocence.

Not claiming you are an alligator is not the same as claiming that you are not an alligator, nor does it imply that you are claiming you are not an alligator.

  • I was aware of that. But I think there are additional nuances with respect to the usage as a rhetorical device and I was trying to ask about that. – Nobody Nov 19 '17 at 10:59
  • Then your question should make clear that you are not asking about this difference. – Drew Nov 19 '17 at 19:21
  • Well, by now I noticed people didn't understand what I meant. When I was writing it, it seemed perfectly clear to me. Actually I still don't know how to improve it. Especially considering that your answer seems to be equivalent to the last paragraph of my question, but I must have phrased that badly. If you could help me make you understand what I mean, please do (unless my comment already cleared it up). I guess I could add an example to the question. – Nobody Nov 19 '17 at 20:22
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This can be settled by coonsulting a dictionary. Admit (like confess) means to concede the truth of something and implies that one is doing so slightly against one's will. One would not readily volunteer the information, but if someone asks or brings it up, then one admits it. Merriam-Webster online states: "Admit implies reluctance to disclose, grant, or concede and refers usually to facts rather than their implications ⟨admitted the project was over budget⟩."

Your example in the negative--"they didn't admit to a crime"--could imply that they wouldn't acknowledge something that was true. But your particular wording could also mean they didn't admit to any crime; they did not concede that they had committed any crime or even that any crime took place. If you are the one who believes they committed a crime, then you may hear that implication in the statement. But they are the ones who are refusing to make an admission.

If you spoke of a specific action, for example, "They didn't admit to stealing the candy," I'd infer that they didn't or wouldn't concede an allegation that they stole something. It's the same as saying, "They denied stealing the candy." If I had not stolen, of course I would not admit to stealing--would you? The conviction that I stole could be solely in your mind. If you must use the negative, I don't know what other, more neutral word could be used than admit.

So it's the negative sentence that creates uncertainty about the precise meaning, I think. In writing, I would probably not phrase it as in your example.

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