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ESL Story: The language of suspicion

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When the police are suspicious about a man's activities, they are naturally very reluctant to make their suspicions known to the public. Within the privacy of the police station we know very well that they are busily drawing up a list of suspects and among themselves considering those they suspect most of having committed a particular crime, referring to them as the prime suspects in the case.

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And when someone is, as we say, taken in for questioning by the police, all we are told through the press, radio and television is that a man is helping the police with their enquiries. But you and I do not have to be so guarded in expressing doubt about what other people do or what they tell us. At the same time nobody likes to be proved wrong so to avoid calling someone a downright liar or totally disbelieving a piece of news which we have been given, there are several expressions at our disposal, that enable us, in the event of our suspicions being groundless, still to keep our self respect.

At election time politicians tend to promise us rich rewards if we vote for their party. But if you've heard many of these promises before, you may well have your doubts: I'm all in favour of people working a bit harder but personally I have my doubts when the leader of the Central Party assures us we can double our standard of living through his policy of increased efficiency. A sensational advertisement in the newspaper may well cause you to smell a rat: I must admit I began to smell a rat when I saw in the paper this hotel offering a week's free holiday in July; and then I saw in very small print at the end that this offer only applied if it snowed continuously for seven days. Someone's behaviour may strike you as fishy: I thought it was very fishy to see this man walking down the street and trying several car door handles until I was told he was an actor being filmed for a TV play. Of course you can't always explain what it is precisely that strikes you as odd or what it is about somebody that you don't quite trust; there's something but you can't quite put your finger on it: I don't know what it is really that I dislike about old George – I somehow can't quite put my finger on it but whenever we meet, we never seem to hit it off. Excuses however genuine they may in fact be are occasionally a bit hard to swallow or sound rather far-fetched: I know he said he was late because he had to feed the cat but when he explained that it had taken him two hours – well that did seem a bit hard to swallow. Quite frankly that story about his being unable to come because he got his toe stuck in the plughole sounded rather far-fetched to me.

For comment about people's behaviour that appears out of character we use the expression – it doesn't ring true: At first it didn't ring true when they told me Mr. Johnson had got married; after all he had been a bachelor for 65 years. Events or situations that we can't explain cause us to remark: it doesn't add up: I had the car serviced at the garage yesterday and they found nothing wrong with it; and yet this morning the wretched thing refused to start – it just doesn't add up. In all the examples I have given the doubter could well have been proved right or wrong in his suspicions. And when that time comes for the truth to be revealed, we can either exclaim with a certain pride: There what did I tell you: or more modestly mutter: Well, we all make mistakes.

Of course there are occasions when our informants tell us something that we regard as quite preposterous. Here are some unlikely pieces of information followed by suitably incredulous comments:

  • You know that old car I bought? Well I did a 100 miles an hour in it last night. Who are you trying to kid?
  • If you let me have £500 now, I'll double it for you by next week. You don't expect me to fall for that, do you?
  • I'm afraid you'll have to pay a fine of £5 for parking there. Come off it! It's not as much as that surely.
  • We're hoping to spend our holiday on the moon next summer. Tell me another.
  • And of course you'll need a passport to cross from England to Scotland. Oh yes, I wasn't born yesterday, you know.

    Mind you, if you go around disbelieving everything anyone tells you, you'll find yourself getting labelled with a certain title that's been current now for close on two thousand years. You have been warned; be over-suspicious too often and they'll call you a doubting Thomas.

    Dear Friend,
    If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please post your answers on the forum here: The language of suspicion.

    Many thanks.

    If you have any English grammar or vocabulary questions,
    please post them on this English Grammar Forum.


    Next:ESL Story: The language of understanding

    Author: Alan Townend




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