The Grammarphobia Blog

A suspect usage

Q: I believe language is always changing, and the rules of English are changing too. But is it OK now to use the verb “suspect” in place of “expect”?

A: Yes and no. It all depends on how the word is used.

The verb “suspect” can mean (1) to distrust, (2) to imagine to be true, or (3) to believe guilty without proof.

The verb “expect” can (among other things) mean (1) to anticipate, (2) to consider probable or true, (3) to suppose, or (4) to be pregnant.

If the words are being used in sense 2, then “suspect” and “expect” are pretty much interchangeable: “I suspect [or expect] that the etching is not a genuine Rembrandt.”

It strikes me that “suspect,” when used in sense 2, suggests something negative. But neither The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) nor Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) seems to agree with me.

The Oxford English Dictionary, though, makes note of this negative association. It says the verb “suspect” has been used to mean “expect” since the early 16th century, usually in the sense of anticipating something dreadful.

In a 1509 allegorical poem cited by the OED, for example, a knight prepares to do battle against a fierce giant: “Makynge me redy, for I did suspecte / That the great gyaunte unto me wolde hast.”

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