27

To my (British) ear, it never sounds correct to say you have a doubt about something.

I expect that doubt to be pluralised, even if there's only one specific thing that I'm doubtful of, in one specific way, so I would always say "I have doubts about something".

Answers to this ELU question say that using doubt as a synonym for question is "Indian English". That seems to be the case in this ELL question which starts with "I have a doubt on my construction", because the OP really is saying "I have a question" (which he goes on to actually ask). Okay, it should have been a question/doubt about something, not on, but I'm not concerned with that detail here.

But in another ELL question the OP says "...there is a doubt that can I use [some construction]". In that case it's not easy to see how the word doubt can be replaced with question.

I don't have a problem with, for example, "The reason for my doubt is [some reason]", because there I interpret it as doubt=uncertainty (a state of mind, syntactically equivalent to words like happiness, agitation, sorrow, etc.). But you certainly can't "have a happiness about something". So my question is...

Is it acceptable today to use singular noun doubt in any contexts where it means something other than state of mental uncertainty? If so, what are those contexts?

  • your title is at odds with your question in that the title is a self-referential sentence about a state of mental uncertainty, which you specifically exclude from the question. – horatio Mar 29 '13 at 17:27
  • Doesn't doubt just mean "a feeling of being uncertain about something or not believing something"? – kiamlaluno Mar 29 '13 at 17:57
  • I've now read the word doubt so often and in quick succession that it doesn't look like a real word to me anymore. Dauw-bt? ;) At any rate: my instinct as a native speaker is to agree with you, but I can't venture to explain why. – WendiKidd Mar 29 '13 at 21:41
  • @kiamlaluno: Maybe that's the "crossover point" in meaning (I think you sometimes write "I have a doubt"). But from my point of view, that's like saying happiness means "a feeling of being happy". Which doesn't work for me as a native speaker (you'd have to at least say happiness is the feeling you have when you are happy, or something). It's not so much the definition - it's the grammar of how we can use the word. Or maybe there's some subtle semantic distinction I can't put my finger on, I don't know. – FumbleFingers Mar 30 '13 at 1:43
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    Are you sure? I haz a dou--ohwait. But you're right, it's the different usage contexts that obscured it in my mind. ("Without a doubt" is rarely used sarcastically, while "no doubt" frequently is.) – Jonathan Garber Mar 30 '13 at 2:29
15

Because doubt is an old word (the OED attests it from 1225) there are a number of nuances of meaning. In summary, with my numbers not OED's:

  1. A subjective state of uncertainty about the truth or reality of something;
  2. (plural) A feeling of uncertainty as to something;
  3. The condition of being objectively uncertain;
  4. A state of affairs which gives rise to uncertainty;
  5. A matter or point involved in uncertainty; a difficulty (Obsolete);
  6. Apprehension, dread, fear (Obsolete);
  7. A thing to be dreaded; danger, risk (Obsolete).

As a singular noun, it is decidedly abstract and refers to a state of being. Thus one can be in doubt about something. As a mass noun referring to a state of being, doubt would not normally be pluralised.

When it refers to a particular feeling of uncertainty it is pluralised. Thus if one has that feeling, one has doubts. One does not "have a doubt" because the singular doubt refers to a state of being; senses 5, 6 and 7 which refer to particular things are obsolete in Standard English.

The uses which are obsolete in Standard English may have survived or been resurrected in other dialects. The ELU references say that it does occur in Indian English.

4

It doesn't grate on my American ear. Though I'll concede that I have doubts sounds better, I had to think about it.

I checked my usual sources: Ngrams and Google books, and concluded:

  • The (perhaps more technically correct) I have doubts is more common, though both can be found.
  • The Ngram for British English has a perceptibly flatter line, so it may be a bit more common in the US than in the UK.
  • I did find this except in parliamentary debates (although the excerpt does not indicate who is speaking):

I wish to see legislation that works. At the moment I have a doubt about its workability. I have asked this question before to the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland .. and I did not receive an answer.

(maybe she snubbed him because he said "I have a doubt" – who knows?)

Source: The Parliamentary Debates (Hansard): Official Report, Volume 674 Great Britain. Parliament. House of Lords, 2005


EDIT:

(to FumbleFingers and the downvoter, who may not be one in the same)

Okay, I didn't want to have to do this, as I included some links for the curious to explore. However, if more samples are needed to thwart the downvoting, so be it:

I have a doubt about this story. Whereas Holt has displaced the nationalist preoccupation with whether freedom was given or taken he nevertheless reproduces a story about the ultimate failure of the liberal emancipation project to confer substantive freedoms.

– quote taken from Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality, by David Scott, 1999. Yes, Scott did write a book covering Mother Teresa – maybe that's where he picked up this horrible English phrase? – but he was born in Ohio, attended seminary in Pennsylvania, and he recently served a two-year stint as editor in chief of the Catholic News Agency.


You owe it not to modern science, but to ancient superstition. Had they not obligingly provided the commandment, it were vain for you to provide the camera. Besides, I have a doubt about this scientific superiority of fire-arms...

– quote taken from The Scientific Mind, a 1927 short story by G.K. Chesterton. Yes, in the excerpt, the cook is talking to the professor, not the other way around, but I don't think Chesterton is trying to make the cook sound ignorant or uneducated.


It isn't always possible to know why a given sentence in your overview isn't effective, but if you suspect a given sentence isn't strong or if you have a doubt about whether a given idea is a plus, rethink and revise the material in question.

– quote taken from The Art of the Book Proposal, described by the publisher as "an expert's guide through the elements of a nonfiction book proposal." It was written by Eric Maisel, an American author who has written more than 40 books.


There is nothing that intercessory prayer cannot do. Oh, believer, you have a might engine in your hand, so use it. Use it constantly, use it now in faith, and you shall surely prevail. But perhaps you have a doubt about interceding for someone who has fallen far into sin.

– quote taken from Intercessory Prayer, a sermon delivered by Charles Spurgeon, British theologian and preacher. Excepted from the book Spurgeon on Prayer. I will grant that the language is flowery, designed to be spoken from the pulpit in the 1800s; nonetheless, I have no more problem with Spurgeon saying "have a doubt about" than I do with him starting the sentence with a preposition.


Analogously, Cicero does not have a doubt about the immortality of the soul, since nature itself has placed in us this conviction. In fact, everyone is concerned with life after death. This is, for Cicero, the surest argument in favor of immortality, even if he does not hesitate to support it with traditional Platonic proofs.

– quote taken from A History of Ancient Philosophy III: Systems of the Hellenistic Age, by Giovanni Reale. Reale was an Italian philosopher who published his five-volume tome in 1975. Blame for this use of the English phrase "have a doubt about" may need to be placed on the shoulders of the translator, John R. Catan; however, given Catan's rather impressive resume, I'm not inclined to categorize this as a rookie mistake.


Now, back to the original question:

To my (British) ear, it never sounds correct to say you have a doubt about something. [emphasis added]

Never is a strong word. I've offered five quotes ranging from the 19th century to the 21st century, ranging from theologians to atheists, ranging in context from philosophy to fiction, from respected authors with roots on either side of the Atlantic. None of them caused me to bristle as though I just heard fingernails scraping on a chalkboard, and none of them made me immediately question if the author was a speaker of Indian English.

Never is a word that spurs pedantic analysis. I usually try to avoid it. In this case, I think there are times when have a doubt about something sounds acceptable, and supporting examples can be found if you're willing to do the research.

  • Oh dear! Per my recent comment above, I wasn't really expecting any "non-Indians" to say the question in the title was "acceptable". Do you perhaps live in an area with a high proportion of Indians? Apparently your parliamentary citation was by Viscount Colville of Culross (born in British Columbia, died 2010), in the context of a debate about multiculturalism in Bristol, just after Baroness Corston quoted Mahatma Gandhi. Subliminal suggestion? – FumbleFingers Mar 2 '14 at 13:15
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    My two cents: I can sort of convince myself that it's okay, but intuitively it doesn't sound right to me as an AmE speaker. And for what it's worth, I have spent a lot of time with Indian speakers. – snailboat Mar 2 '14 at 15:04
  • @snailplane: The parents living in two of the five closest neighbouring houses to mine are all Indian/Pakistani, and another has Indian parents living across town. But they're all "well-integrated", after living in the UK for decades. Although there are limits to how much they can lose their accents, in my experience they quickly and willingly learn to avoid constructions which might have been standard in their native land, but are viewed as "odd" by Brits in their "adopted" land. – FumbleFingers Mar 2 '14 at 17:22
  • @Fumble - Oh dear indeed. I work on a college campus in the U.S., which means that I do see Indians on a daily or at least weekly basis, but most of my day-to-day conversation happens with people who speak using a Midwestern U.S. dialect. Anyhow, I've amended my answer to provide a few more examples. – J.R. Mar 2 '14 at 19:01
  • @J.R.: It certainly isn't my downvote! Quite possibly I've downvoted other things you've posted, but I don't see how it would make sense to downvote a native speaker for saying some particular usage "doesn't grate". What you personally do or don't find "natural" must surely be entirely up to you. I could only downvote, say, an assertion that significant numbers of other people felt the same, if there was no evidence to back that up. But in this specific case, even 294 (apparently, mainly Indian) instances of "I have a doubt about this" are nothing compared to 7100 for the plural form. – FumbleFingers Mar 2 '14 at 19:43
2

I doubt it.

meaning you don't really believe what you were being told. If you believe you are right, that's not mental uncertainty.

No doubt.

This is a set phrase similar to absolutely or for sure.

In your phrase

I have a doubt on my construction...

I would say

I have my doubts on my construction...

although this one seems to be mental uncertainty.

0

I've heard "I have a doubt about [some technical subject]" when the proper phrase would be "I have a question about [some technical subject]". "doubt" implies some sort of distrust or uneasiness, where what is actually happening is the person is merely missing some information and would like an answer. Not sure where "doubt" and "question" have gotten to be synonyms, but the mis-use seems to come almost exclusively from non-native speakers.

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