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I don’t think...

One thing that often makes me stop and think is when people use the following type of statement: “I don’t think you told me to pick up milk.” Is it true that I don’t think? No. It is true that “I think you didn’t tell me to pick up milk.” But because of my lifetime speaking habits, I don’t even take the time to speak this way. And it even sounds slightly snooty. How do other people feel about this?

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Ladylucy, a question in the form "I don't think (something)" does not refer in any way to whether or not you actually have thought processes.

The concept you're having trouble with is whether the verb is transitive (it has an object) or intransitive (it does not). If you were to disagree with me, you would say, "I don't think so," or, "I don't think that you are correct." in either case, something follows the phrase "I don't think" and that thing is the object of the verb "to think." (I'm not sure whether the verb "to think" can ever be fully intransitive; whenever a person thinks, he necessarily thinks OF something.)

If the distinction doesn't make sense to you, compare these pairs of statements:

"Elbert Snowden runs away." (Intrans)
"Elbert Snowden runs a major multinational oil company." (Trans)
"My feet hurt." (Intrans)
"My feet hurt the delicate flowers I walked upon." (Trans)
"I leaned against the barn wall." (Intrans)
"I leaned the rake against the barn wall." (Trans)

speedwell2 November 15, 2004, 9:26am

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I'm not really talking about whether this is an intransitive verb. I simply don't like the sound of "I don't think..." I prefer the word-for-word translation of "I think you didn't tell me to pick up milk.." If you examine the meaning of what's really being said, it more accurately describes what's happening. I'm looking at the "I don't think.." and the "I think you didn't..." The rest of the sentence is irrelevant... object or none.

I saw this in something I read recently: "The boys weren't working very hard (I don't think.) on their project."

ladylucy November 16, 2004, 3:23pm

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(shrug) Whatever it is you're talking about (and frankly I'm not sure I can make it out), it isn't a valid distinction in English grammar. It sounds like you have a personal "thing" against using a perfectly correct and acceptable English sentence. To each his (her?) own, I suppose.

speedwell2 November 17, 2004, 3:08am

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Thanks for the respect, Speedwell. I don't have a personal "thing" against it, at least not in the way that you think I do.

I don't care if it's a valid distinction in English grammar. Does every conversation here have to come down to what's right or wrong? I'm just pointing out something that I think is interesting (and slightly makes me cringe) even though it's acceptable. I use the phrase all the time. I know it's acceptable, but I actually wonder how it ever became acceptable, because when interpreted word-for-word, it sounds like it is saying "I don't think..." It doesn't make sense to me. I would like to find out the history of how this phrase developed, but I'm sure there's no way. I find it interesting that you don't understand what I'm trying to say.

I don't see this as a transitive/intransitive verb issue. You can just as easily say "I think you didn't tell me to pick up milk." The interesting point you made about whether "to think" can ever be fully intransitive still applies here. But this has nothing to do with what I'm talking about above.

I'm sure I'm opening myself up for another insult from someone, but here goes.

ladylucy November 17, 2004, 7:06am

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"It doesn't make sense to me."

OK, I accept that it doesn't make sense to you. Fair enough?

Anonymous November 17, 2004, 8:51am

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"I do not think [that] you told me to pick up milk."

Lewis Carroll also noted how silly the phrase can sound:
Alice: I don't think --
Hatter: Then you shouldn't talk.

Anonymous November 17, 2004, 8:00pm

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Newcomers should realize that this is a question about personal preference and not about proper grammar. Both of ladylucy's initial example sentences are actually correct English sentences.

speedwell2 November 18, 2004, 2:55am

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The first Anonymous..
You said:
"OK, I accept that it doesn't make sense to you. Fair enough?"
I appreciate if you're trying to help, but it sounds like you're patronizing me.

The second Anonymous...
Not sure if you're the same person... If you are, why don't you establish a nickname for yourself?
"I do not think [that] you told me to pick up milk." That doesn't really fix it. You're essentially still saying "I don't think." But thanks for pointing out the Lewis Carroll example. I love Alice in Wonderland.

I think people who come here are intelligent enough to read the posts and figure out what we've already said. I have seen other conversations here where people point out things in the language that they think are interesting or maybe just bother them. Excuuuse me for doing so! Apparently you just aren't interested in this subject because you spend all your time telling me that it's nothing but a hang up, so why don't you just leave the conversation? And I thought you had a good sense of humor in previous conversations...

ladylucy November 18, 2004, 10:53am

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(ladylucy, second Anonymous was me ... ;-)

It's an idiom, according to some sources:

If it sounds condescending it may be because you're indirectly challenging the other's memory.

You'd probably have trouble with "I don't believe ..." :) Perhaps try "I don't recall ...," but that could be misread as an admission of senility.

We can't win, ma'am. Waaah.

spaztic November 18, 2004, 12:51pm

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"Excuse" has only one U, dear.

speedwell2 November 18, 2004, 3:54pm

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Wow! Nothing gets past you! I'm sure everyone is impressed. And don't call me "dear"; it makes me queasy. Apparently you enjoy being condescending to women.

ladylucy November 19, 2004, 1:23am

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So if you thought the person told you to buy milk, you'd say "I think you told me to buy milk." But if you didn't think that, I think it's perfectly logical to say "I DON'T think you told me to buy milk." I think it's as accurate, & certainly more understandable, than your original suggestion... & I agree, saying "I think you didn't tell me to buy milk" sounds condescending &/or needlessly challenging.

Johanna November 19, 2004, 7:05am

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THANK YOU, Spaztic! I knew there was a word for it, but couldn't put my finger on it. Idiom= A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements. Well, maybe it's considered an idiom, or not. But it definitely is peculiar.

I could say, "I don't think before my morning coffee." Here, it's pretty clear, isn't it? I am saying that I don't think, and I MEAN that I don't think. (No jokes, please.) OK Speedwell, I'm illustrating an intransitive usage. Take a bow.

But if I say, "I don't think you told me...," I am saying I don't think, but I MEAN that I do think that you didn't tell me. (I promise I'll never repeat this again!)

So there's a difference; do you see it? One is transitive and one is definitely intransitive... but that's not the only point. This example is unique. The other examples that Speedwell supplied don't have the same kind of result when made negative, although they are good examples of transitive/intransitive verbs. But "I don't believe..." and "I don't recall..." are similar to "I don't think..." Good thinking, Spaztic.

ladylucy November 19, 2004, 9:38am

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Well, It is understandable to say "I don't think you told me to buy milk." because people are used to it and it's an acceptable phrase. But see my post just before this...

ladylucy November 19, 2004, 9:42am

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By the way, is there more than one Speedwell? This is a comment from you in the "All But..." thread under Etymology:

"I'm the last one here to criticize someone just pointing out a pet peeve and asking the community what they think! :)"

You may not have directly "criticized" me, but you were disrespectful and condescending.

ladylucy November 19, 2004, 10:32am

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Wow, hot topic! Brings back memories of my USENET days. We'll see how long it takes Hitler to make it into this thread.

Anyway, my only comment on all this is for ladylucy - actually I'm surprised no one has brought it up explicitly yet. There is a difference in meaning between the phrases "I do not think you told me..." and "I DO think you did NOT tell me...". The first indicates a lack of information on my part whereas the second indicates a specific belief I have about your actions. They're pretty close, of course, and might be used almost interchangeably, but I think the first phrase is a little softer and less aggressive and is perhaps used for that reason.

I had a German girlfriend who would frequently say things like "I think you didn't tell me to buy milk" and it always sounded like an accusation. Then again, I guess most of the things she said to me were accusations but that is perhaps a matter for a different thread ;)

joachim2 December 14, 2004, 12:55pm

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Good thinking, joachim. You are definitely changing the sentence when you restate it. That's my whole point. But I'm glad you spelled it out like that. You said it better than I did.

However... my main point was that "I don't think you told me..." really sounds uncomfortable and odd to me. Every time I say or hear it, I feel like restating the sentence. (I never do, because it 's really unnecessary.) I realize that it's an acceptable way of speaking, but I don't understand why. I guess this is just my own view... and your ex-girlfriend's.

Somehow, I ended up getting abused for my thoughts. Many people bring up their little pet peeves and things that they just don't like, but I just get disrespect. Oh well.

ladylucy December 16, 2004, 7:56am

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I suppose you could always just use "I don't believe" if it doesn't set off your peev-o-meter. Technically one might even be able to make an argument that it's more correct, but I think (believe?) in this case "think" and "believe" are pretty much interchangeable.

You're correct that you should not get dissed for having an unusual point of view about the English language.

joachim December 16, 2004, 8:02am

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I won't change how I say it. I can go on with life despite the strange language I was brought up to speak. :-) It has so many exceptions and oddities! No wonder people find it difficult to learn English as a second language!

ladylucy December 17, 2004, 2:25am

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"Think" and "believe" are psuedo-synonyms. It is in the fact that "think" and "believe" were once inverted by the uneducated and have since become inseperable.

Nigel February 26, 2005, 2:01pm

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Just to weigh in...I agree with Nigel-when I look at my Longman learner's dictionary (ok, my students' Longman dictionary...) the first meaning of think is " to have an opinion or belief about something" In this case, "I don't think you told me not to buy milk" would be a true synonym for "I don't believe you told me to buy milk." Interestingly, the meaning " to use your mind to decide something, solve problems, have ideas, etc." is second!

CQ March 1, 2005, 7:16am

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The first sentence ("I don't think you told me to pick up milk.") feels more natural to me than the second one, and it *doesn't* imply that I don't think! Maybe it all becomes clear if you add THAT after 'think'... "I don't think THAT you told me to pick up milk." Thus it is something *specific* that I don't think; it isn't the case that I generally don't think! :-)

Diana April 16, 2005, 7:31pm

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I am surprised a native English speaker would have these feelings about "think", which is partly similar to what I myself thought about when I began to learn English. As already pointed out, in English "think" and "believe" has become interchangeable. "I don't think so" is really "I don't believe so", and there is no real difference. However in my own language Swedish their "literal" meaning remains, and thus "I don't think so" would in English translate to "I don't think like that" We even have a third word which is also translated to "think" in English.
A. "I don't think(believe) you will succeed" -> belief
B. "I don't think you should do that" -> meaning of opinion.
C. "I don't think like that" -> actual thought process
In Swedish, the word "think" would be translated to a different word in all three examples, with C being the actual word think (tänka). So for being known as a language with lots of words and synonyms, English appears weak in this case.

But to get back to the point. After becoming more comfortable with English, these thoughts about "think" is no longer there, since this is how it works in English. And when fully accepting that "think" is used as in the examples A-C, the sentences are basically the same as in Swedish, and sound perfectly natural to me.
However, saying "I think you didn't ...", while equally grammatically correct in Swedish as in English, sounds to me kind of odd in both languages, and only to be used in special situations. I think it goes against what to me feels like the natural flow of the sentence.

slemmet April 17, 2005, 9:27am

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I don't think implies or directly translates to "I do not think" when actually I do think, but "I think you did not" a more positive direct statement or translation. Or "I don't think" so is "I think not" because you do THINK "no".

donal Godfrey September 19, 2017, 6:00pm

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Yes     No