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I just ran across the following sentence:

I doubt ordinary civilians would hardly ever die from gunshots.

And in context and from a quick skim-reading I'd guess it's trying to say, "Ordinary citizens will rarely die from gunshots" but upon re-reading I'm not certain that the sentence actually means that.

I suspect this is because I translate "hardly ever" to "rarely" which then suggests that the "doubt" refers to the rarity, indicating that they believe deaths wouldn't be rare.

Ignoring the author's actual intent, what does this sentence say?

  • The author subsequently changed the sentence to "I doubt that ordinary civilians would have much to fear from a gunshot." so now we know the intent. However, I'd still like to understand from an English perspective how the sentence should have been understood in the absence of context or author's intent. – Adam Davis Dec 14 '15 at 20:39
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The default reading is that the speaker does not believe, or at least finds it very unlikely that "civilians hardly ever die from gunshots".

However, the presence of the "implied double negative" (doubt + hardly ever) also triggers the native speaker's "slip-of-the-tongue" detector; the way it is written clearly implies that the person started out to say one thing and got his phrasing slightly confused as he progressed.

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I doubt ordinary civilians would hardly ever die from gunshots

Without further context or knowing author's intent, I'd read doubt as referring to the speaker's belief. They don't have the full facts or statistics, but this is their best guess.

They think that most of the time ordinary people, if they are shot with a gun, will not die from their injuries (if any).

This is opposed to people like soldiers, terrorists or guerilla fighters, who they expect will more often die after being shot with a gun.

  • So you could replace "doubt" with "believe" in this case and have the same result? – Adam Davis Dec 14 '15 at 20:37
  • Yes, I'd say so, in this particular case. At first reading I didn't even pick up on the possible double negative aspect, and that a literal reading could mean the opposite. I wonder if it's similar to Jane Austen's use of "which certainly was not unseldom", where a literal reading gives a different meaning to the idiomatic use of "not unseldom". – Hugo Dec 14 '15 at 20:54

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