Every once in a while, we get questions on math.SE that seem to be trying to use the word "doubt" in a non-standard way. If you search for "doubt" (on math.SE, not here on meta), you'll find dozens of these questions. I'm wondering what exactly is meant. Often the intended meaning seems to be something like "question", but I'm not sure whether that's all there is to it. It seems that in some other languages (or perhaps in one language with many speakers) the semantic field of questions, doubts and uncertain knowledge is carved up slightly differently. Perhaps someone whose native language works that way could throw some light on this? (In my native language, German, the words are closely synonymous to their English counterparts: question/Frage, doubt/Zweifel.)

  • $\begingroup$ This would be an excellent question for the languages proposal. It is a sort of translation question with unknown language of origin. $\endgroup$ – Phira Nov 12 '11 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Phira: You mean this proposal? $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Jun 29 '12 at 6:58

It means "question" in Indian English, though I'm not sure about all the nuances.

From a question on English.SE:

This is Indian English. See Vishy's Indian English Dictionary.

July 12, 2006
Vishy's Indian English Dictionary: doubt

doubt. /DOWT/. A question asking for clarification. In standard English and American, the noun doubt is uncountable and refers to a lack of complete trust in something. Doubt may be expressed as simply as doubting someone's abilities or as profoundly as someone doubting their own religious faith. Not so in India. In India, doubt can be used as a countable noun. When a school teacher goes over an intricate concept in class, she invariably leaves some students with doubts in their mind about their understanding of the material just covered. Students ask her questions to get a better understanding of the concept and each such question is called a doubt. It is entirely normal to hear a statement like "I have just one doubt, miss" or "If you have any doubts before the exam tomorrow, come see me in the staff room". The doubts in the aforementioned sentences are not as much rooted in a lack of faith as in a lack of understanding. Attentive readers would have encountered the Indian English sense of doubt a fair bit on online message boards in threads started by Indians. Titles such as "Visual Basic .NET/Oracle doubt" are not uncommon for threads on programming-related message boards. It is my understanding that this sense is mostly prevalent in southern India, but I could be wrong on this count.

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    $\begingroup$ Likely, but possibly not necessarily so; someone from Mexico who is mentally translating from Spanish can say "I have just one doubt" would be just as normal in the exact same situation (though "I have just one question" would be about as common). $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Nov 12 '11 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ For what it's worth, my friends from North India also use this term $\endgroup$ – Robert Martin Nov 13 '11 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ "Doubt" is not uncountable in standard English. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jun 29 '12 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ Just a remark that Indian English is not nonstandard any more than American English is nonstandard - just a different dialect! $\endgroup$ – user29743 Jan 25 '13 at 13:58

In Spanish (at least in Mexico), it is perfectly common and fine to preface a question with "Tengo una duda" (literally, "I have a doubt" or "I have one doubt"). It would be entirely common to hear it just as in the example quoted in Fabian's answer. Though it would be just as likely to hear "Tengo una pregunta" ("I have one question" or "I have a question").

  • $\begingroup$ This usage is not particular to the Mexican "dialect" (as I'm sure you suspect) and, indeed, anecdotal experience indicates the former may be more common than the latter in some "academic" contexts. $\endgroup$ – cardinal Nov 13 '11 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @cardinal: It may not be particular to Mexican usage, but since usage varies widely in Latin American, I thought it best to be sure. (E.g., in Mexico, there's absolute no problem in talking about washing the "trastes" (dishes), but don't use that word in Argentina!) $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Nov 13 '11 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ I think I just saw Mariano blush. $\endgroup$ – cardinal Nov 13 '11 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ @cardinal: Could be worse; the dishes could be dirty because of all the 'dulce the leche' in them. Of course, that's not what we call it in Mexico... $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Nov 13 '11 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ Wow. That made me blush! ;) $\endgroup$ – cardinal Nov 13 '11 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ Off-topic now, but bicho is another perfectly respectable (and versatile) word in my vernacular---but, another one to be careful with around people from other regions. $\endgroup$ – cardinal Nov 13 '11 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ @cardinal: more closely related to the original question: in Mexico, you can say "No es cierto" (which literally would probably be "it is not certain") to mean "it is not true"; my impression is that in South America and Central America people would normally say "No es verdad" ('it is not truth'). $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Nov 13 '11 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ No es cierto sounds (slightly) more pleasant to my ears and would be my natural preference in my own spoken usage. $\endgroup$ – cardinal Nov 13 '11 at 23:29

One of my customers is Spanish. If a native English speaker doubts what I say, it has a negative connotation, not quite that I have lied but maybe so. But for the Spanish it seems to just be not understanding what was said, not in the sense of parsing the sentence, but in the sense of not getting the meaning. It helped a lot in our relations when I realized that and stopped taking offense.

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    $\begingroup$ Spanish, as in, from Spain? Or Spanish-speaking? $\endgroup$ – cardinal Nov 14 '11 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ @cardinal: Spanish, as in from Spain. $\endgroup$ – Ross Millikan Nov 14 '11 at 14:45

While I am not certain about how big is the set of native Hebrew speakers on this site, I figured I'd weigh in from that side of the globe.

It is perfectly fine in Hebrew to say that you are "skeptic about a proof" which translates very close (in the semantic metrics) to "having doubts about a proof".

While I can't recall hearing myself or anyone using "doubt" in such way, my memory often fails me, and it is more than likely that a native Hebrew speaker would use it that way.

Lastly, it seems that everyone but the English and the Americans use "doubt" in the non-standard way.


In French, the reflexive "se douter" can mean something like "guess" or "conjecture".

I have no doubt that the majority of doubters on this site are of Indian origin, but the above might also surface now and then.

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    $\begingroup$ True. But of all people, the French should have no doubt about the meaning of le doute. $\endgroup$ – Did Nov 12 '11 at 21:25

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