Benefit of the Doubt - Meaning, Origin and Usage

Do you suspect someone of stealing from you, but you're not sure if it was them? If so, you would give them "the benefit of the doubt" while you figure out what's going on. This post unpacks the origin and meaning of this saying.

Benefit of the Doubt Meaning

Giving someone "the benefit of the doubt" means that you value their character, and you will believe their story until someone confirms otherwise.

For instance, if someone thinks you committed an illegal act or an act of mistrust, but they can't prove it was you, they will likely give you the benefit of the doubt until they can gather evidence that proves the contrary.

It's a similar saying to the more common, "innocent until proven guilty." Innocent until proven guilty is more of a legal term, while "benefit of the doubt" applies more to social and professional settings. You're choosing to believe what the other person has to say because you have a relationship with them and trust them.

Essentially, you're telling them that you believe them but that there is a possibility that you know they are deceiving you.

Benefit of the Doubt Example Usage

"I think he stole the money, but we've known him for years. So, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt until we prove otherwise."

"Lee told me that it was you that caused the network blackout, but I know you well enough to give you the benefit of the doubt here. What do you have to say for yourself?"

"I know you know your math, so I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you got the model right this time."

"Chris said he would meet us there at 1 pm. He's always late, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt and see if he arrives on time."

Benefit of the Doubt Origin

Some language experts believe the phrase "benefit of the doubt" originates from the term "reasonable doubt," used in the legal system. In this case, it means "innocent until proven guilty," Some experts believe a rendition of the phrase first appeared in the Irish treason trials during 1798. According to transcripts, the term appears as follows.

"if the jury entertain a reasonable doubt upon the truth of the testimony of witnesses… they are bound to acquit."

There is some evidence to suggest that the phrase appeared in the United States for the first time during the Boston Massacre Trials in 1770, but no transcripts confirm this theory.

The phrase would shift from "reasonable doubt" to its current format of "benefit of the doubt" in the late 1800s, where it entered the mainstream language.

Phrases Similar to Benefit of the Doubt

  • Innocent until proven guilty.
  • Believe you for now.

Phrases Opposite to Benefit of the Doubt

  • Assume the worst.
  • I have no faith in you.
  • You don't give me confidence.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Benefit of the doubt.

Ways People May Say Benefit of the Doubt Incorrectly

Some people may use "benefit of the doubt" to describe that they doubt the other person's integrity or they have doubt in their actions. This use of the phrase is incorrect and the opposite of the meaning. Some people may also pronounce the term incorrectly as "benefiting the doubt," or “benefit of doubt.”

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Benefit of the Doubt

You can use "benefit of the doubt" when you're trying to tell someone that they are innocent until proven guilty. If you suspect a person of doing something wrong, but you trust them, and they deny it, then you would give them "the benefit of the doubt" until you can prove otherwise. The phrase suits professional and social situations.

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