I think,I believe,I feel
March 11, 2010 4:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm learning English.Some native speakers say,"You can say both "think" and "believe"the same way in conversational english." I thought both are completely different, though.And how about "feel"?Do you use these three words the same way?And if not, please explain how different they are.
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You can use "think" and "believe" in the same way sometimes; basically like this:

I think I'll have a sandwich for lunch
I believe I'll have a sandwich for lunch

are both totally acceptable. However, you can't interchange them all the time; saying "I think in the Loch Ness Monster" is meaningless. You must use the word "believe" in such a case.

As far as the word "feel" as it pertains to "think" and "believe", you can say something similar to the above if you follow it with "as though". Observe:

I feel as though I'll have a sandwich for lunch

That's something I feel as though I say a lot. =)
posted by King Bee at 5:02 AM on March 11, 2010

In conversational English, in my experience as a native speaker who lives on the Eastern seaboard of the US, "think" and "feel" are often used interchangeably. The words mean different things when written: the former conveys cognition, the latter emotion. However, in conversation they are both often used to suggest a reaction to something or an opinion, and so are used interchangeably.

Believe is also sometimes used this way, to express an opinion, although less often. More often "believe" is used to express a thought or some information about which one is somewhat unsure. "I believe the battle was in 1066, but I could be wrong." The word "think" is also used in this situation, and could be substituted in the above sentence, so they are interchangeable in that regard.

However, and I don't want to confuse matters too much, "believe" and "feel" are not quite used as interchangeable with each other. One could use "feel" to convey information about which one was uncertain, but usually this would indicate even less certainty in what is being conveyed. If someone said, "I feel like the battle was in 1066," I would think they were very unsure that they were right. In this case the emotional meaning of the word feel would bleed into the colloquial meaning and make it seem, to me, as if the speaker had no evidence beyond dim stirrings in their soul.
posted by OmieWise at 5:02 AM on March 11, 2010

You use "believe" when you're saying something based on a fact you heard but you don't want to seem too confident or arrogant. In other words, there's more truth or conviction behind it. You use "think" more when stating you're opinion. "Feel" is more like intuition.

Q: Where's Bob?
A: I believe he went to the shop.
(You know he went to the shop but are just being a little cautious, just in case)

Q: Where's Bob?
A: I think he went to the shop.
(You don't know for sure, but you have reason to believe he went to the shop. Maybe you saw him get his wallet or something.)

Q: Where's Bob?
A: I feel he went to the shop.
(You would never say this unless you're some kind of weirdo psychic)
posted by thesailor at 5:02 AM on March 11, 2010 [7 favorites]

Good question!

If you are not sure about something, if it's something which can't really be known, in English we usually use "think" even though in most other languages one would use the equivlanet of "believe". Think is a little uncertain, believe is very certain.


I think about 20 people will be there.
I think it was about four years ago.
Yes, I think so.
I think that's right.

Believe is really quite a strong word in English. It's also a little formal, and we use it only for religious/philosophical things, or for emphasis. It also is used sort of in a trusting way.


I believe in God.
I believe you!
Yes officer, I believe I should have been obeying the speed limit.

Feel can be used like "think". But it's to show caution - it's even more uncertain than "think".


I feel like you might be forgetting something
I feel like we have gone to that cafe too many times.
posted by molecicco at 5:05 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, "think" and "feel" examples:

I thought the character dealt with her unemployment well.

I felt the character dealt with her unemployment well.

Also, I overlooked King Bee's example of another way that "think" and "believe" are used interchangeably. I would argue that that formulation is not as prevalent in spoken English as it once was. My grandmother uses it a lot, and I use it rarely.
posted by OmieWise at 5:05 AM on March 11, 2010

I'm sure there will be some grammar wizard who comes in and explains the technical differences between these, but from a US native English speaker, here's my explanation of when I use each, intuitively.

Okay, say you stopped me and asked for directions to the store. I'm not 100% certain of where the store is, so I could say,

I think it's around the corner.
I believe it's around the corner.

I would not say,

I feel it's around the corner.

(And if someone said that to me, I would ask somebody else for directions!)

In general, "think" and "believe," when discussing ideas and prospects that are not 100% certain, are interchangeable verbs. However, "believe" does sound a bit more formal to me. For instance, I can't imagine a gum-chewing twelve year old telling me, "I think it's around the corner."

Think and believe, when discussing such ideas, also lend themselves to more concrete, definite assertions. That is, both of the following sound correct, grammatically, as a way to start a debate between opposing sides on the matter of the death penalty:
"I think the death penalty is wrong."
"I believe the death penalty is justified."

However, if I opened up the debate by saying "I feel the death penalty is wrong," I would be setting a different kind of tone for the discussion that followed. "I feel" instantly moves us out of the territory of facts and into the more ethereal terrain of sentiments, ethics, and moral intuitions.

So, to make a gross generalization that does not always hold true, "I think" and "I believe" are often used in regard to subjects intended to be discussed in terms of facts -- discussions in which there is the possibility (or the goal) of reaching an actual decision or discovering a single, actual truth. "I feel" is more often used in discussions where there might be no right answer; where the truth appears subjective; or where reaching a decision or finding out the "right answer" is not the (or most important) goal.

In conclusion: I feel that the above is a good start to explaining the difference, but I also think that other answers will prove very interesting. In fact, I'm very interested to see how others respond.
posted by artemisia at 5:05 AM on March 11, 2010

Locally, (US Northeast) in conversational English, think and believe can be used interchangably to describe your uncertainty about a particular subject.

Good: I think my mother has gone to the store.
Good: I believe my mother has gone to the store.

Believe can also be used to express matters of faith in a subject, where 'think' would not be appropriate because think would only apply to expressing belief in the correctness of a subject, not the subject itself.

Good: I believe in ghosts.
Good: I believe that ghosts are real.
Good: I think that ghosts are real.
Bad: I think in ghosts.

Feel can also be used to describe your belief in correctness of a subject, but only in matters of opinion, and cannot be used to describe uncertainty about a subject.

Good: I feel that ghosts are real.
Bad: I feel in ghosts.
Bad: I feel that my mother has gone to the store.
posted by coryinabox at 5:07 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I see from your userinfo that you're in Japan. Is your native language Japanese? I'm asking because someone who is fluent in both languages may be best equipped to field this question.
posted by box at 5:25 AM on March 11, 2010

Excellent question! In a work setting, as a native speaker, I probably do use the three verbs interchangeably to an extent:

"I think that we need more data before coming to a decision." (fairly strong, without being dogmatic)

"I believe that we need more data before coming to a decision." (slightly less strong than using 'think', emphasis - to my mind - on being polite and deferring to others' perspectives, being open to others convincing me that their opinion is more correct)

"I feel that we need more data before coming to a decision." (also slightly less strong than using 'think', but - to my mind - gives a sense that I've come to a conclusion about what I think but that I want to express that in a polite way)
posted by pammeke at 5:26 AM on March 11, 2010

When people say "believe" instead of "think," they're emphasizing that they're uncertain and might be wrong.

"I believe he coming at 3:00" means "I think he's coming at 3:00, but I'm not sure."

Some people say "feel" instead of "think" when they're expressing agreement, disagreement, or an opinion. So you can say, "I feel that he's wrong" or "I feel this is a good idea." But saying "I feel that he's coming at 3:00" or "I feel that a greyhound is a kind of dog" would sound odd, because it's not an opinion.

People also say "feel like" in place of "feel (that)" to indicate uncertainty. It usually means what they're saying is a hunch or conjecture (that they think something but can't explain why). When people say "believe" in place of "think," it usually means their memory could be wrong.

"I think he's wrong" and "I feel he's wrong" mean almost the same thing.

"I believe he's wrong" means what he said is different from what I remember, but I'm not sure of my memory.

"I feel like he's wrong" means I think he's wrong, but I'm not quite sure why. (What he said just doesn't sound right.)
posted by nangar at 5:50 AM on March 11, 2010

The dictionary is your friend here. Consider believe: If you are using believe as in "to hold an opinion" then you can use think instead (or the other way around). "I believe this is so" or "I think this is so". Overall, think is a pretty tricky word, lots of usages and synonyms depending on the exact usage.

My feeling is that believe sounds a little formal when it could be replaced by think. When you could interchange them, I would use think most of the time and believe only in formal situations.
posted by anaelith at 5:52 AM on March 11, 2010

Oh, and feel... You can use feel for opinions, too, but most people would only use it for opinions with strong emotional content (opinions that can't be verified*). You can use feel to make statements that would be rude with think or believe.

*If I say "I think Joe went to the bar", it is an opinion because I don't actually know that Joe went there--I'm just guessing, but I'm guessing based on my knowledge of Joe and his habits. I can verify it by going to the bar and seeing if Joe is there. If I say "I think Joe drinks too much" there is no way to verify it, because there isn't a set level for too much. If I wanted to talk about it with Joe, I would say "Joe, I feel like you drink too much." I would use "feel" instead of "think" because it sounds a little nicer and less angry.
posted by anaelith at 6:17 AM on March 11, 2010

Everybody should believe in something -- I believe I'll have another drink. -- W. C. Fields.

Thus the word "believe" is used in a large range of situations, from deep conviction to whim.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:40 AM on March 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Maybe if you told us what your native language is we could help come up with examples that match your native language. Based on your username, I think you might be Japanese, but I believe it's possible you may not be. I feel like more info from you would be helpful.
posted by spicynuts at 7:19 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing you may notice -- even in this thread -- is that some people use 'believe' when they're more confident than when they use 'think' and others use it when they're less confident. Usually you can tell by tone of voice which side of that line they fall on, but it's not always clear.

I don't know if that's a regional difference, or a difference between people who were brought up with religion (where belief is powerful and important) vs. not religion (where 'believing' is what you do when you don't actually have proof of anything), but it is one I've noticed.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:28 AM on March 11, 2010

You use "believe" when you're saying something based on a fact you heard but you don't want to seem too confident or arrogant. In other words, there's more truth or conviction behind it. You use "think" more when stating you're opinion. "Feel" is more like intuition.

More generally these words can all be used as qualifiers to signal that you aren't 100% certain about the truth of a statement you are making. Some more words that can be used in a similar context:

Guess: Can be used to show that you are literally making a guess about something ("I guess he might be in his office") or to show that you are conflicted about it ("I guess I can give you his home phone number, if you promise not to tell him how you got it"). Suppose also works the same way in the same contexts.

Seems: Can be used to show that there is some evidence suggesting that the statement is true ("He seems to have left for the day (because his office is locked)").

Assume: Can be used to show, based on past evidence or some other expectation, that the statement is true ("I assume he'll be back tomorrow at 9:00"). Expect works the same way in the same contexts.

Might: Can be used to show that there is a possible chance of the statement being true ("He might have left a note, I'll go check").

Surely: Can be used to show there is little doubt that the statement is true ("Surely, he couldn't have left without his car").
posted by burnmp3s at 7:41 AM on March 11, 2010

I look at it this way...
"Think" is more data based.
"Believe" is more experience based, or based on data that you are not entirely sure of.
"Feel" is based on emotions.

This is a great question.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:50 AM on March 11, 2010

One of the best ways to answer questions like this, where you're asking a broader question about usage rather than a specific question about definitions, is to look at a corpus. These are collections of huge numbers of texts (or transcribed bits of speech) that get used for linguistic research, and some of them are freely available and easy to navigate online.

Something like the Corpus of Contemporary American English would let you search by a particular string of words ("I think", "I feel", "I believe"), and see, for example, what kind of context they get used in, whether one is more common in formal writing/speech than another, and see what kind of words you'll often find near them. Comparing 'I think' and 'I believe' on COCA just now, for example, told me that 'I believe' turns up more often next to words suggesting religious faith ('Christ', 'miracles', 'Bible') and words suggesting strong emotions ('heart', 'belong', 'honor') than 'I think' does; and that 'I believe' tends to be more positive, while words suggesting negative judgement ('outrageous', 'silly', 'nonsense', irresponsible') turn up more often next to 'I think'.

(warning: activities such as the above can be geekily addictive.)
posted by Catseye at 8:06 AM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Think" has a tentative feel to it. Evidence may sway it.

"Believe" is one of those fuzzy words that has about 5 meanings, and only one of them is close to "think" -- speakers using this may mean something else than you understand*. In the case you're asking about, it's close to an assertion that has insufficient proof, and might exist boldly in the face of contradictory proof.

"Feel" is the contemporary "believe", for people more inclined to treat Truth as contextual, and so use feelings as a less repugnant word that means the same thing.

* "I believe in the Tooth Fairy. I believe in gay marriage. I believe in Johnny. I believe I'll have lunch." And a few more I cant think of right now.
posted by cmiller at 8:15 AM on March 11, 2010

"I think" is used primarily as a statement of fact, which is why it can come across harshly in a negative context. Saying "I think you're being lazy" is just about the same as outright stating, "you're being lazy."

"I believe" allows a slight amount of doubt to seep in, but a belief is a strongly held conviction. Saying "I believe you're being lazy," allows the possibility that there was something missed, perhaps the person being spoken to is doing work behind the scenes?

Note that there is a bit of implied subtext to the use of "I believe I will have a drink," and the implied meaning is actually "I believe (that it is a good idea that) I will have a drink." Obviously the speaker doesn't need to "believe" in the possibility of having a drink!

"I feel" is purely emotional, and is often best avoided as it's over-used and comes across as wishy-washy. Certainly it's fine for describing actual feelings such as "I feel loved," but the word implies no actual intellectual analysis of the situation. "I feel like you're being lazy," is a nice way of putting it, but if you're trying to state something with force, "feel" undermines your point. For instance, "I feel like the Nazi regime was evil," just has no "oomph" at all.
posted by explosion at 8:16 AM on March 11, 2010

If you're learning English, do you know about the wordreference forums?
posted by d. z. wang at 8:39 AM on March 11, 2010

If you're hoping to learn that English as it is commonly spoken is highly precise about this sort of thing, you're in for disappointment.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:57 AM on March 11, 2010

The prepositions that follow "think", "feel" or "believe" can totally alter the intended meaning.

"I feel that the death penalty is wrong" is stating an emotional position towards X

"I feel like I left my keys here" is stating a position of uncertainty relative to some presumed facts that are unknown or unclear to the speaker, but taking a guess anyway- it's like saying "I'm am not 100% certain that X is right, but if I had to guess, I would say it is."The construction "I think so" is also close to "I feel like" depending on context.

"I feel like having a sandwich" is simply stating mood or preference and is totally different from the other "feel like" example.

"I believe that I will have a soda" is stating future intent

"I believe in the tooth fairy" is stating something like "I have faith in the tooth fairy" - using "believe in" signals a position that may or may not be based strictly and only on facts; there is some emotional basis for the statement

"I think that restuarant is good" is stating an opinion, but be careful; the word "that" is not a preposition here, it's an adjective, so it doesn't really modify what the verb means. Usually, if "think" is not followed by a preposition, it's a statement of opinion.

"I think that I left my keys here" is stating uncertainty

"I thought of inviting her to the wedding" signals that the speaker spent some time consider the stated option; there is no opinion or emotional content, just literally saying "I had that idea in my mind at some point"

There are way more examples but not enough space, so I hope it's clear how the preposition can change what the verbs mean.

The other cues for "think" will come from the tone of the speaker, the content and context of the sentence, and the relationship of the speaker to the audience.
posted by slow graffiti at 9:44 AM on March 11, 2010

You may want to look into the idea of Linguistic Modalities and of Framing.

In short - it depends on context.
posted by MesoFilter at 9:53 AM on March 11, 2010

Wow..thank you everyone..but actually it is not easy to get what all of you told me..I am struggling with these answers now.And then it is interesting that there is the opposite way of thinking about "believe"..it gets me a bit confused.Well,will be there a difference even between The UK and The US? Now I feel so.
posted by mizukko at 6:08 PM on March 11, 2010

Yeah, it's mostly context. Here is my attempt at clarification:

Believe: to have an opinion as to the truth or correctness of some thing or concept.
"I believe in god." "I believe in the right to vote." "I believe the children are the future."

Think: to use one's mind. That one is easy.
"Let me think about that for a while."

Those two usages cannot be interchanged. The rest of the meanings are more subtle. They can all be synonyms with the word "reckon".

Believe: to state a preference.
"I believe I will have the eel, and the side salad with a diet coke."

Think: to state (or refer to) a preference, but less forcefully. Tone and context counts here.
"I think I'll have the clams..... no, wait, I'll have the Monte Cristo sandwich."

These two usages are somewhat time based. In my experience, believe is used in a more present way, where think can imply the future. You are not yet finished deciding. so you might think you want to paint the room green, consider it for a while, and then come to the belief that blue would be a better choice.

Believe: to state one's best guess at a fact, or recollection, usually in answering a question. Even if nobody asked. In this usage, believe is the more pretentious choice than think.
"I believe the circumference of the earth is 36,000 km."

Think: Same as above, less formal/pretentious.
"I think the tank is about half full."

(These would be said with a slightly questioning tone. Implying that you aren't sure. The less questioning the tone, the more sure you are.)

Those are the "active", hard-to-misunderstand forms of the words. They can also be used to give commands or instruction to people in a passive aggressive sort of way. "I believe the salad fork is the smaller one, dear." "I think you should probably put a hat on." You are telling someone what to do, but you are stating it as if it were an opinion, so as not to seem pushy. In these cases, the context is different. Nobody asked a question, the target of the comment either already knows what the speaker is saying, or the speaker can say it in a condescending tone, as if they are just reminding you of something you ought to know. These usages should be avoided in polite conversation.

Really, that is the crux of it.
posted by gjc at 7:32 PM on March 11, 2010

From Mr. Deludingmyself, who spent a year in Japan teaching English after college:

"The truth is, Japanese has a lot of 'bright line' rules about which word to use where English just doesn't. If mizukko is talking about the verb '~to omou,' most of the time I would translate that as think, not believe or feel."

The following is a very rough guide if you're trying to get comfortable with all three in conversation and want to decide which word fits best:

Think - use this for FACTS or OPINIONS
Believe - use this for OPINIONS or GUESSES that aren't fact-based
Feel - use this for statements based on EMOTIONS

That said, "feel" is most likely to sound odd if used incorrectly. Your last sentence, "Now I feel so," sounds slightly weird to a native speaker.

If I were trying to make my English sound more natural, I would stick to using think or believe in most of these cases, and only use the word feel as part of the phrase "feel like," as in "I feel like going out tonight," or for a more emotionally-charged situation, "I feel like you don't understand me."
posted by deludingmyself at 7:45 PM on March 11, 2010

In many circumstances "think" is about cognitive function and "believe" is more about faith and credos and truths held to be evident. But they do come together regularly. The following are functionally the same in some (not all!) specific contexts.

I would like to have a turkey sandwich.
I think I'll have a turkey sandwich.
I believe I'll have a turkey sandwich.

Basically the speaker wants, is asking to receive, a turkey sandwich.

But, since language is not simple and hugely dependent on context and intonation, they could also mean completely different things including:

1) (would like) I wanted a turkey sandwich, but that's not the only possibilty of what's going to happen in the future (which is why I'm using a subjunctive tense and stressing the word like). I might just get stuck with the crummy egg-salad sandwiches instead.

2) (think) I'm projecting a future which includes a turkey sandwich, but you know, there's still some room for uncertainty whether that will actually happen.

3) (beleive) I've chosen to accept as true that I will be having a turkey sandwich.

If I had to take a stab in the dark about just what ties think and believe together in some contexts and not in others, maybe it would have to do with the origin of belief: Some things you just believe. They are, and always have been. But other beliefs you arrive at by thinking. So if your thinking produces a belief, the results could reasonably be expressed both ways, no?

And without having any material support, "feel" isn't quite in the same category, although, yes, it can also be used to express the substance of thought and belief. It's more tentive maybe. And I think the usage is growing less common: I'm recollecting hearing "I feel sick," and "I feel like you are wrong" but not so much "I feel [that] you are sick/wrong'" in daily speech.

As I'm mulling it over, I'm wondering if it developed as a polite construction: A way of re-phrasing thinking and believing for a less forceful presentation. Formality and manners can play merry Hell with semantics.
posted by Ys at 7:51 PM on March 11, 2010

Man, I think if I wasn't a native speaker I'd be confused as all heck by now. Hope you're hanging, OP. But I may take a crack at this anyway:

These words are all quite closely related, and their meanings overlap a great deal. But if I had to tease out the slight changes in connotation that differentiate them, I would put it like this:

All of these verbs have to do with "things one regards as true."

"Think" connotes "I have rationally concluded that this is true"

"Feel" connotes "my emotional response to this suggests that this is true"

"Believe" connotes "I have faith that this is true"

"Believe" tends to be used in situations where one is making a formal declaration with moral implications: I believe in God, We believe that all men are created equal, I believe he's guilty.

Thus by extension it can take on a slightly more formal cast and is sometimes used for passionate declarations: I believe in a thing called love, I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky.

The "faith" connotation also explains the idiomatic expression "to believe in;" if you believe in something suggests not only that you think it's true but that you support it, consider it worthwhile, likely to be a success, and worth defending. (See, for example, Joe Canada.) If someone is feeling discouraged or doubtful, you might say "I believe in you," e.g. I trust that you will succeed.

Where it gets a little complicated is that all of these verbs leave a little room for the speaker to be wrong --- you may think, feel, or believe something is true, but you can't absolutely prove it; If you can have absolute proof you would say, "I know."
posted by Diablevert at 3:12 AM on March 12, 2010

It is a great question, but, as a student of English, you probably already knew that native speakers (who are not teachers) are the worst people to ask these kinds of questions to. You can always ask them, "Which sounds correct?" or "What do you say when...?" But never ask them to explain anything, because, by and large, native speakers never know why they say the things they do, and you end up with the kind of contradictory, anecdotal, personal opinion type of answers you see here.

You're better off consulting textbooks specifically designed for ESL students. They explain things in a way that makes sense, with proper terminology, and in a concise manner. What you've got here really does nothing more than confuse you even more.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 3:10 AM on March 14, 2010

For me, English is a tool to communicate with people and to expand my world including my intellectual one. So it is important to learn it from the text books, which might give me the correct answers, but learning everyday English from various people is also important and actually more interesting to me. Thank you very much.
posted by mizukko at 1:54 AM on March 17, 2010

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