Doubt: Harder Than You’d Suspect

Quiz time!

1. Look at the picture

2. Answer the question (to yourself)

3. Check the answer below (no peeking!)


This is a picture of graffiti advertising for machine drilling a new well (jī zuàn jǐng 机钻井). I asked my students why there were so many phone numbers advertising the same exact thing. Some students said the numbers all belong to the same person. Other students disagreed. One student said, in Chinese:

Wǒ huáiyí zhèxiē hàomǎ dōu shì yí gè rén de.

And the debate went on.

What is the correct English translation of that sentence?

Feel free to use a dictionary. Click the hanzi above to use an online one.

Write down or at least say aloud what you think the correct translation should be before reading on. The answer has nothing to do with the context of the situation. There is one grammatically correct answer.


Wrong: I doubt these numbers are all one person’s.

Correct: I suspect these numbers are all one person’s.

The Problem

huáiyí 怀疑 = doubt / suspect.

But “doubt” and “suspect” have opposites meanings in English!

So how do we know what native speakers mean when they use huáiyí 怀疑? And how do we find know what we really said if we use it?

The Solution

Let’s first look at what you have to say in Chinese if you really want to say:

“I doubt these numbers are all one person’s.”
wǒ huáiyí zhèxiē hàomǎ dōu shì yí gè rén de.

So here’s how I suggest dealing with huáiyí 怀疑 in different grammatical situations:

1. huáiyí 怀疑 + Independent Noun Clause (contains Subject and Verb, even if the Subject is implied)

In this case, huáiyí 怀疑 = rènwéi 认为 = “suspect” = “think.”

The original sentence:

huáiyí zhèxiē hàomǎ dōu shì yí gè rén de.

Basically means:

rènwéi zhèxiē hàomǎ dōu shì yí gè rén de.

Which can be translated as:

I suspect these numbers are all one person’s.
– or –
I think these number are all one person’s.

2. huáiyí 怀疑 + (nothing)
– or –
huáiyí 怀疑 + Noun

In this case, huáiyí 怀疑 = doubt.”

For example:

A: tā shuō tā huì lái.
He said he’ll come.

B: wǒ huáiyí.
I doubt it.

– or –

B: wǒ huáiyí tā shuō de huà.
I doubt what he said.

3. huáiyí 怀疑 + Phrase containing “Verb Not Verb”

In this case, huáiyí 怀疑 = “doubt” + Verb

For example:

wǒ huáiyí tā huì bú huì lái.
I doubt he’ll come.

So in summary, if huáiyí 怀疑 is used:

1. Before a “complete sentence” (independent clause), like “these numbers are all one person’s,” then it means “suspect” or “think.”

2. By itself or before a “thing” (noun or dependent noun clause), like “what he said,” then it means “doubt.”

3. Before a “verb not verb” phrase, like “tā huì bú huì lái 他会不会来,” then it means “doubt” and you just get rid of the “not verb” (bú huì 不会) part.

If anyone else has a better way of keeping “doubt” and “suspect” straight, I’m all ears.

9 Replies to “Doubt: Harder Than You’d Suspect”

  1. My first reaction as well was to interpret it as “doubt,” and I think hearing “huai” got my brain thinking about , which I acknowledge is a no-no. Moreover, two of the three situations you outlined translated the word to doubt, further emphasizing that as the default one-to-one translation solution.

    I assume you got external validation on all three translations from a native speaker?

    I honestly think if I heard that statement I’d follow up by asking a clarifying question with a verb that doesn’t have the same issue:


  2. Isn’t this the same as the double role that ‘suspect’ plays in English? For example:

    I suspect she’ll be late today.
    I suspect his gratitude’s sincerity.

    I’ve always thought of 怀疑 is simply ‘suspect’ and have never really had problems with the two roles.

  3. @Peder,
    External validation: yes. Actually, this is such a weird one that I asked 3 informants independently to confirm. My conclusions were a big surprise to each of them. Most Chinese speakers of English don’t seem to know that “doubt” and “suspect” are usually opposites in English.

    Clarifying questions: always a good idea.

    But um, my impression of yǐwéi 以为 is that it’s usually used to say “you thought (but you were wrong)…” Unless you know for sure that these numbers are NOT all the same person’s, I would suggest juéde 觉得 or rènwéi 认为 or even xiǎng for your clarifying question.

  4. @John Biesnecker,

    Excellent point! But (maybe this is just my personal preference) I don’t often say “I suspect his gratitude’s sincerity.” I personally would say “I doubt his gratitude’s sincerity.”

    My other example where someone just says, “wǒ huáiyí” 我怀疑 in response to something someone else said would sound very strange (and, I dare say, have no meaning) if translated “I suspect,” or “I suspect it.”

    The real problem I’m addressing is that all my dictionaries give “doubt” and “suspect” as definitions definition for huáiyí 怀疑 and I was looking for a way to explain how to keep those two English definitions straight.

    Also, going from English to Chinese it’s important to understand how this little word works. For example, imagine I’m translating for someone and they say:

    “Ok, I know everyone thinks this guy stone my cell phone, but tell him I doubt he’s a thief.”

    I can’t just say, what I would have said before:

    tā huáiyí nǐ shì xiǎotōu

    Because that means: “I suspect you are a thief”!

    How would you translate “I doubt you are a thief”?

  5. @Albert,

    True, I would probably say “doubt” in that sentence as well, but “suspect” would be understood, but as you say, 我怀疑 is definitely “doubt.” Hmm… this is one of those cases where I wish my grounding in English was better than it is 🙂

    As for “I doubt you are a thief,” I would personally say 我觉得你不是小偷, and drop the “doubt” all together. I think that’s closer to how I would say it in English, too — “I don’t think you’re a thief.” I think 我不怀疑你是小偷 would work too.

    Anyway, you’re right about most dictionaries having “doubt” and “suspect” as a definition for the word. It’s one of those things that I had never really thought about before you brought it up, and now that I am, I’m worried that I’ve been totally confusing people with it 🙂

  6. I’ve run into this exact problem, the way I’ve dealt with it is to just completely disregard the “doubt” translation, and have been telling Chinese people to do the same. On your first example in the solution, you said 我怀疑这些号码都不是一个人的. If a Chinese person saw this sentence and wanted to translate it into English, choosing to use the “doubt” translation would then form “I doubt these numbers are NOT all one person’s” which has a double negative and is the opposite meaning of what you’re trying to convey. So throwing out “doubt” completely, how does one reconcile
    我怀疑他说的话. Instead of saying “I doubt what he said”, a better translation using a form of “suspect” might be “I am suspicious of what he said”

  7. It’s interesting that you’re putting a syntactic framework around this. As I read the beginning of your post, I was thinking of a more semantic framework. One could say:

    wǒ huáiyí tā shì huàirén.
    I suspect he’s a bad person.

    But one couldn’t normally say:

    wǒ huáiyí tā shì hǎorén.
    I suspect he’s a good person.

    I’m thinking a better all-around translation for 怀疑 would be “have a bad feeling (that…)”.

  8. 「壞」與「懷」是兩個字
    共有部份為「褱」,「褱」從「衣」意思為 put in inside the clothes
    「壞」屬於「土」「褱」,意思為(put in inside the earth= rotten bad
    「懷」屬於「心」「褱」,意思為(put in inside the heart= have something in heart/in mindhold it before the heart

    懷疑 = have something uncertain/unsure in heart = doubt/suspect

    []由「矢arrow」「匕->compare」「定」構成, 意思為uncertain/doubt/suspect
    []means (no compare arrow) = sure

    []unsure, []sure

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