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Doubt as a Janus word
Posted: 27 October 2012 01:02 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I am familiar with the use of the verb “doubt” to mean “suspect”.

“Doubt truth to be a liar,” says Hamlet.

However, I had taken this usage to be obsolete or archaic.

In his recent retraction of his comments on Powell, Sununu says:

“Colin Powell is a friend and I respect the endorsement decision he made and I do not doubt that it was based on anything but his support of the President’s policies.”

If we assume doubt has its conventional modern meaning, the second half of that sentence contradicts the general sense of the first half: it would mean, “I am certain that it was based on anything but his support of the President’s policies.”

It’s pretty clear Sununu did not mean this I would guess that either a) he got a bit muddled mid-sentence or b) he is using doubt in ye olde sense of “suspect”.

Does doubt=suspect have any currency in modern American English?

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Posted: 27 October 2012 04:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Or it could be what Language Log refers to as overnegation or misnegation.

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Posted: 27 October 2012 04:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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MW11 lists a current sense of “to lack confidence in: distrust.” And my own experience suggests that this sense is indeed very current. People doubt one another’s motives all the time.

The OED entry is too outdated to be of much use in this question.

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Posted: 27 October 2012 09:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Dave: that sense seems quite different to the one I’m referring to. It seems akin to the normal modern sense of doubt.

The sense I am referring to is basically opposed to those senses.

What I am referring to as thenormal modern sense of doubt is as follows: to say that you doubt that (something) is to say that you think that (something) is probably not true, or at least might be not true.

In the other sense, the sense I am asking about, the sense of the Hamlet quote above, to say that you doubt that (something) is to suspect that (something): ie it is to say that you think something is probably true, or at least might be true.

In dictionary.com’s entry from the Collins English Dictionary (10th edition), there is the following sense, which appears close to what I am getting at:

11.  ( Scot ) ( tr; may take a clause as object ) to be inclined to believe

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Posted: 27 October 2012 09:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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You’re overthinking this and Faldage is certainly correct—it’s simply another case of misnegation.

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Posted: 27 October 2012 11:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Overnegation is common in spoken English, and has been for a millennium. It’s only in modern, formal, written English that it’s considered bad form.

To me, this sounds like a perfectly normal and acceptable spoken sentence. So normal that I actually had trouble parsing it so as to come up with the contrary meaning.

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Posted: 27 October 2012 01:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Same here.

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Posted: 28 October 2012 03:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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You’re overthinking this and Faldage is certainly correct—it’s simply another case of misnegation.

Fair enough, just wanted to ask whether the other sense might still have currency. Thanks for your answers.

To me, this sounds like a perfectly normal and acceptable spoken sentence.

Well, to me too: it is a perfectly normal sentence but its meaning is opposite to what the speaker intended, due to a minor brain-out, like he has started one way and finished another way and lost count in between. There isn’t any way, in the normal modern non-archaic-Scots meaning of doubt, that it can be parsed to mean that he thinks it was based on support for the president’s policies (which is what he wants to say.)

“anything but his support of the president’s policies” can only mean the complete set of possible bases other than his support of the president’s policies. If he doesn’t doubt it is based on this, it means he is certain it was based on something other than support of the president’s policies.

Two versions without the misnegation would be:
I do not suspect that the that it was based on anything but his support of the President’s policies.
I do not doubt that it was based on his support of the President’s policies.

So normal that I actually had trouble parsing it so as to come up with the contrary meaning.

For me it was a speedbump on the freeway.

Labouring the point here but I’m sure it has to be marked as a blunder.

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Posted: 28 October 2012 04:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Labouring the point here but I’m sure it has to be marked as a blunder.

I don’t think so. First, almost no one would hear it that way. Second, overnegation is the usual. Despite what formalist grammarians opine, multiple negation is the usual practice in English. Only in formal, written English is the practice avoided. Were Sununu writing an op-ed, it might be a blunder. But in speech, it’s not.

The ban on multiple negation started, like so many grammatical rules, with those eighteenth-century grammarians. But outside of formal writing, the proscription has never made much headway, mainly because there are good reasons for using it. In speech, for instance, a single negative particle can often be missed. Repeating it ensures the meaning comes across.

Had Sununu said, “I do not doubt that it was based on his support of the president’s policies,” there would certainly be many in the audience who would have heard, “I doubt that it was based on his support of the president’s policies.” (Redundancy can be a good thing.)

Although technically this isn’t overnegation, as there is only one negative particle. But the combination of “not” and “anything” achieves the same effect.

[ Edited: 28 October 2012 04:49 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 28 October 2012 07:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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it is a perfectly normal sentence but its meaning is opposite to what the speaker intended

This doesn’t really make sense: if the speaker intended meaning X and meaning X is what the hearer/reader gets unless they perform an unlikely logical analysis, then X is the meaning.  Would you tell the French that they are all wrong to use double negatives because if you analyze them logically they come out positive?

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Posted: 29 October 2012 07:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Well, friends, I’m gobsmacked.

“ Would you tell the French that they are all wrong to use double negatives because if you analyze them logically they come out positive? “

Given that I understand French grammar, when I analyze them logically means they don’t come out positive.

I also understand English grammar and have some familiarity with the meanings of its words: “don’t doubt” doesn’t mean “doubt”. It doesn’t mean “don’t suspect”. I am of course aware that overnegative is present in English, so my analysis will be made keeping that in mind, and in so many cases it is easy to detect and not likely to lead to misunderstanding. “I ain’t got no money” is always going to mean “I’ve got no money”. This is not one of those cases. partly because it is a relatively complex clause.

This is a case where there is a clear indication from the context of the whole sentence, and from the broader context of the announcement, that overnegation must be in play: we already know what he means. Absent that, though, the reader would not have a means of determining whether whether the “not” is intended: after all, overnegation is _common_, not universal. you can’t just up and _assume_ it is in use, and this is quite a crypto-overnegation, as Dave has indicated. If I had only been given the second half of the sentence (starting at I do not doubt), I would have no way of determining whether Sununu was using normal, formal grammar, which would mean he doesn’t accept that it was based on policy, or overnegation, in which case it means the opposite.

The ban on multiple negation started, like so many grammatical rules, with those eighteenth-century grammarians.

I’ve no interest in banning multiple negation but there are certainly cases in which its use can lead to confusion and this is one.

This doesn’t really make sense: if the speaker intended meaning X and meaning X is what the hearer/reader gets unless they perform an unlikely logical analysis, then X is the meaning.

“Unlikely logical analysis”? That Sununu is certain it was based on anything but policy is the straightforward, obvious meaning that doesn’t come from any unlikely analysis, but from ordinary interpretation of language that we all do every day of the year. For me, to interpret it to have the opposite meaning is a leap that could only be made by considering the broader context. Probably no point in arguing about this point: it’s clear enough that you and I have different parsing habits.

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Posted: 29 October 2012 12:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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That Sununu is certain it was based on anything but policy is the straightforward, obvious meaning that doesn’t come from any unlikely analysis, but from ordinary interpretation of language that we all do every day of the year.

Except that you seem to be the only one doing it.  I’m not putting you down or saying you’re wrong, just that your analysis is not, in fact, ordinary.

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Posted: 30 October 2012 08:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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There’s Doubting Thomas. Would Suspecting/Suspicious, or Sceptical Thomas work? Suspecting might imply grave misgivings not a temporary lapse.

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Posted: 30 October 2012 09:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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“Colin Powell is a friend and I respect the endorsement decision he made and I do not doubt that it was based on anything but his support of the President’s policies.”

This statement, and its original intent (which is, I think, discernible if one makes the effort, as several posters have done) can be made quite clear by substituting the word “believe” for the word “doubt”.  Even then it’s still a horrible sentence, reminiscent of the examples given by Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”

I don’t know who Sununu is.  He seems here to be making a political comment.

If politicians can talk through their hats, why shouldn’t political commentators do so too?

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Posted: 30 October 2012 11:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Sununu is a former governor of New Hampshire and former White House chief of staff under Bush the elder.  He was obliged to resign from the latter position when it became known that he’d been using government aircraft for personal (non-job related) travel, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He’s currently associated with the Romney campaign, and is considered a “surrogate” for the candidate (a strange, and AFAIK fairly recent term, which deserves a thread of its own).

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Posted: 30 October 2012 02:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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thanks, Dr. T.  so he’s not just a political commentator, he’s an ordinary, common or garden dishonest politician.  No wonder his meaning is difficult to grasp.

Edit: If I’d known that from the outset, I wouldn’t have bothered posting on this thread. Really, OP Tipping.  since when do politicians mean what they say, or say what they mean?

[ Edited: 30 October 2012 02:37 PM by lionello ]
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