The Grammarphobia Blog

Think piece

Q: Way back in high school, I had Sister Aloysius for an English teacher. Each time a supposedly educated student started a comment with “I don’t think,” she’d stop him with “You’re right, you don’t think.” She wanted us to say “I don’t believe….” Today when I hear “I don’t think,” particularly from a speaker I don’t like, I yell out “You’re right, YOU DON’T THINK!” What is your take on the matter?

A: We think Sister Aloysius was being cranky for no good reason. There’s nothing wrong in beginning a sentence with “I don’t think….”

People do this quite regularly, as in “I don’t think it’s going to rain after all,” or “I don’t think it needs more salt, do you?”

The verb “think” is legitimately used in the sense of “believe” and accompanied by a direct object—a word, phrase, or clause indicating what is thought, believed, etc.

We suspect that Sister Aloysius was under the impression that “think” cannot correctly be used as a transitive verb—that is, one that has a direct object.

But for more than a thousand years, “think” has been both transitive and intransitive. When used transitively, it takes a direct object (as in “to think evil thoughts”). When used intransitively, it has no direct object (as in “Now think!”).

Here are some more examples of each, from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Transitive: “Canst thou remember … ? I doe not thinke thou canst” (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, 1610-11); “No doubt you think yourself as good” (from a poem of Ambrose Bierce, 1910).

Intransitive: “Pause here, and think” (from a poem by William Cowper, 1800); “Consider: take a month to think” (from a poem of Tennyson, 1842).

As the OED explains, one of the meanings of “think,” used transitively, is “to hold as an opinion, to believe, judge, consider.”

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