The Difference: Expect / Suspect (English Verbs)

The English verbs expect and suspect have different meanings. However, understanding the difference is difficult. Let’s look at some examples to figure it out.

train station schedule

Situation #1: John is looking at a train schedule. He can see when the next train should come. Here it would be natural to say:

“I expect my train will arrive in 5 minutes.”

but it would less natural to say:

“I suspect my train will arrive in five minutes.”

Why? With expect, you have some proof/evidence that something will likely happen.  Here, the proof is the train schedule, which allows him to make a mental calculation.

With suspect, you are making a guess. You may have some proof, but you are using your feeling (or intuition) to make the guess. Because John has a train schedule, he is not using his feeling.

Situation #2: Lisa at the train station. It is snowing a lot outside. She has a schedule, but she is worried the weather will delay her train. Here it would be natural for her to say:

“I suspect my train will be late.”

Why? She doesn’t have (solid) proof that it will be late. However, she feels that the bad weather can influence the train schedule. She is making a guess based on this feeling. (Remember, suspect is from the word family of suspicion, which is a feeling that something is possible.)

However, as her proof gets stronger, it can become more natural to use expect. Imagine that every time, for the past 10 years, the train has been late when it snows. Now, she it not really using a feeling, but has stronger proof (past experience). In this situation, she could say:

“I expect my train will be late.”

A train going through a snowy area

This suggests the following rules.

  1. Use expect for events that you have strong proof will happen or are true.
  2. Use suspect for events that you have a (weaker) feeling will happen.

This means that in some situations you can use either word, because it depends on how you feel about the proof you have.

One More Difference: Expect Is Forward-looking; Suspect Can Be Used for Present/Past

The verb expect is forward-looking. This means it describes the future events/situations.

  • I expect I will pass the test. (the expectation is about a future event; this means the expectation happened before the event)
  • When I was young, I expected I would become famous. (your expectation was about a future event)

The verb suspect can describe the future but it can also describe the present and past.

  • I expect/suspect it will rain. (both verbs are possible depending on your proof; the verb describes a future situation)
  • I expect/suspect he’s angry. (expect is not natural; you can use suspect because the suspicion is about a present situation)
  • I expect/suspect she married him for his money. (expect is not natural; you can use suspect because this suspicion is about the past)

For example, imagine that your phone is ringing at 4 o’clock. Your mother usually phones you around this time. You cannot say, “I expect my mother is calling” because the action (calling) is happening nowExpect is used to talk about future actions, e.g. “I expect my mother will talk about the weather” (after I answer the phone). In this case, it would be natural to use a different phrase such as these:

  • “That’s probably/definitely/certainly my mother calling.”
  • “I bet my mother is calling.”
  • “I suspect my mother is calling.”  (weak proof, based on a feeling)

Here’s an example in the past. You see your friend and he has a broken leg. You can say:

  • I expect/suspect that he fell down earlier. (expect is not correct because you can’t expect in the present about something in the past. The verb suspect is possible, and means you are making a guess now about what happened in the past)

Summary: How to Use the Verbs Expect &. Suspect

1. Use expect for future events that you have strong proof will happen or will be true.

We expect the train will arrive soon.” (a future event / based on strong proof)

2. Use suspect for future/present/past events that you have a (weaker) feeling will happen.

I suspect that he fell down earlier.” (a past event / based on feeling)

Grammar Forms of the Verbs Expect & Suspect

expect {someone} + infinitive

  • I expected Peter to come to the party.

expect + infinitive

  • I expected to fail.

expect + (that) clause 

  • I expected (that) I would fail. (that is optional)
  • She expected (that) the man would talk to her.

suspect {someone} + base form of verb

  • I suspect John lives alone.

suspect + (that) clause 

  • I suspected (that) I would fail. (‘that’ is optional)
  • She suspected (that) the man would talk to her.

I hope my explanation of the differences between expect and suspect has been helpful. Please leave your comments below if you have a question or suggestion.

—  Matthew Barton / Creator of Englishcurrent.com

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