H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The
King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.
Chapter II. Syntax
'DOUBT THAT' AND 'DOUBT
INSTANCES will be found in Part II of verbs
constructed with wrong prepositions or conjunctions. Most mistakes of
this kind are self-evident; but the verb 'doubt', which is constructed
with 'that' or 'whether' according to the circumstances under which the
doubt is expressed, requires special notice. The broad distinction is
between the positive, 'I doubt whether (that)' and the negative, 'I do
not doubt that (whether)'; and the rule, in order to include implied as
well as expressed negatives, questions as well as statements, will run
The word used depends upon the writer's or speaker's opinion as to the
reasonableness of the doubt, no matter in whose mind it is said to exist
or not to exist.
- If there is nothing to show that the writer considers the doubt an
unreasonable one, the word is always 'whether', which reminds us
that there is a suppressed alternative:
I doubt whether this is true (or not).
Every one is at liberty to doubt whether ... (or not).
To this part of the rule there is no exception.
- If it is evident that the writer disapproves of the doubt, the
words introducing it amount to an affirmation on his part that the
thing doubted is undoubtedly true; the alternative is no longer
offered; 'that' is therefore the word:
I do not doubt that (i. e., I am sure that)...
Who can doubt that...?
This, however, is modified by 3.
- The 'vivid' use of 'whether'. When the writer's point is rather
the extravagance of the doubt than the truth of the thing doubted,
'whether' is often retained:
It is as if a man should doubt whether he has a head on his
Can we imagine any man seriously doubting whether...?
Here, according to 2., we ought to have 'that', since the writer
evidently regards the doubt as absurd. But in the first sentence it
is necessary for the force of the illustration that the deplorable
condition of the doubter's mind should be vividly portrayed:
accordingly, he is represented to us as actually handling the two
alternatives. Similarly, in the second, we are invited to picture to
ourselves, if we can, a hesitation so ludicrous in the writer's
opinion. We shall illustrate this point further by a couple of
sentences in which again the state of mind of the doubter, not the
truth of the thing doubted, is clearly the point, but in which
'that' has been improperly substituted for the vivid 'whether':
She found herself wondering at the breath she drew, doubting that
another would follow.—Meredith.
I am afraid that you will become so afraid of men's motives as to
doubt that any one can be honest.—Trollope.
The mistake commonly made is to use 'that' for 'whether' in
violation of 1. 'Whether' is seldom used in place of 'that', and
apparent violations of 2. often prove to be legitimate exceptions of
the 'vivid' kind. Some of our examples may suggest that when the
dependent clause is placed before the verb, 'that' appears because
the writer had not decided what verb of doubt or denial to use. This
is probably the true explanation of many incorrect thats, but
is not a sufficient defence. It supplies, on the contrary, an
additional reason for adhering to 'whether': the reader is either
actually misled or at any rate kept in needless suspense as to what
is going to be said, because the writer did not make up his mind at
the right time how to say it. 'Whether' at the beginning at once
proclaims an open question: after 'that' we expect (or ought to
expect) 'I have no reason to doubt'.
In all the following, 'whether' should have been used.
There is nothing for it but to doubt such diseases exist.—H. G.
'Whether' is never suppressed.
I do not think it would have pleased Mr. Thackeray; and to doubt that
he would have wished to see it carried out determines my view of the
That the movement is as purely industrial as the leaders of the strike
claim may be doubted.—Times.
And I must be allowed to doubt that there is any class who
He may doubt that his policy will be any more popular in England a
year or two hence than it is now.—Greenwood.
I doubt the correctness of the assertion... I doubt, I say, that Becky
would have selected either of these young men.—Thackeray.
But that his army, if it retreats, will carry with it all its guns ...
we are inclined to doubt.—Times.
It was generally doubted that France would permit the use of her