'Give the Benefit of the Doubt': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on October 22, 2023

Have you ever heard the expression 'give the benefit of the doubt?' It's a pretty common phrase in the English language. But what does it mean? In this article, you'll learn its meaning, possible origins, and how to use it in a sentence.

First, we'll begin with the short version:

  • To give someone the benefit of the doubt is to avoid jumping to conclusions by choosing to believe they are innocent until it's proved otherwise.

What Does 'Give the Benefit of the Doubt' Mean?

The idiom 'give the benefit of the doubt' means to believe someone's statement or assume something favorable about someone, even in the absence of conclusive evidence or proof.

You're basically choosing to believe them, even if there are reasons to doubt them, because you feel sympathy or compassion towards them, or because you want to be fair.

Imagine, for instance, that your sweater has gone missing, and you're sure your sister took it because she always borrows your clothes without asking. Your mom might say to you:

We don't know if it was her yet; let's give her the benefit of the doubt and simply ask her when she returns home from school.

When you use this idiom, you'll need to insert a pronoun between the words 'give' and 'the.'

Here are your options:

  • Give me the benefit of the doubt.
  • Give you the benefit of the doubt.
  • Give her the benefit of the doubt.
  • Give him the benefit of the doubt.
  • Give them the benefit of the doubt.

You could also use a noun instead of a pronoun, such as 'others,' 'my brother,' 'colleagues,' etc.

You might also see the verb ('give') in different forms, such as:

  • 'give her the benefit of the doubt' (infinitive)
  • 'giving her the benefit of the doubt' (present participle)
  • 'gave her the benefit of the doubt' (past indefinite)
  • 'given her the benefit of the doubt' (past participle)
  • 'gives her the benefit of the doubt' (third-person singular)

Where Does 'Give the Benefit of the Doubt' Come From?

The term "benefit of the doubt" has its roots in legal and judicial language. In legal proceedings, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In other words, the legal system grants individuals the 'benefit of the doubt' regarding their innocence until evidence proves otherwise. This principle is a fundamental aspect of many legal systems, emphasizing fairness and the idea that one should not be judged negatively without sufficient evidence.

It is said to have been used in the Irish treason trials in the 18th century, where the following legal principle was applied:

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

Whether or not it was first used in the Irish Treason trials, it's a standard legal principle, and jurors and jury alike must presume someone on trial is innocent until there is evidence to prove they are guilty. Hence the common phrase 'guilty until proven innocent.'

Over time, this legal concept has found its way into everyday language. It is now used more broadly to suggest that, in the absence of clear evidence, it is fair or just to give someone the benefit of the doubt, assuming the best about their intentions or honesty.

So, the idiom likely originated from legal practices and gradually expanded into common usage to express a fair and open-minded approach when dealing with uncertainties or ambiguous situations.

Interestingly, this idiom uses the definite article 'the' in front of the word doubt, which is usually considered an uncountable noun since it's an abstract noun, not a concrete one. This seems to confirm the idea that the phrase originates from legal trials, where there is a specific doubt: did they commit the crime?

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins. Here are some example sentences that use it. I'll include some examples of the verb in its different forms, including the infinitive, present participle, past indefinite, past participle, and third-person singular.

Before the evidence emerged, they were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

I've always given him the benefit of the doubt, but recent events have raised some concerns.

Would you give them the benefit of the doubt in this situation, or do you think skepticism is warranted?

If we give the new employee the benefit of the doubt, it might foster a more positive work environment.

She consistently gives her friends the benefit of the doubt, believing in their good intentions.

Despite the challenges, we have to give the project team the benefit of the doubt and trust in their expertise.

I will give you the benefit of the doubt for now, but I expect a clear explanation soon.

Giving others the benefit of the doubt can lead to stronger relationships and better collaboration.

He gave his colleague the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the mistake was unintentional.

Even though they had made mistakes in the past, I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and offer my support.

Other Ways to Say 'Give the Benefit of the Doubt'

There are plenty of other ways to express this idea of believing in someone's good intentions. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

Here are some of them:

  • Roll up one's sleeves
  • Put in the effort
  • Exert oneself
  • Give it one's all
  • Apply muscle
  • Work hard
  • Dig in
  • Grind it out

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this famous saying. To summarize, to say you'll give someone the benefit of the doubt is to say that you'll assume the best of them even if there are reasons to believe otherwise. At least until there's evidence to suggest they aren't being honest.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!     

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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