Friday, September 09, 2005


Paraphrasing to protect the guilty, I present you with a fascinatingly bad Moebius strip of a sentence:

John Smith, a former firefighter, said he believes that was not true.
OK, so he believes it, and . . . d'oh! How about he thinks that was not true?

A lot of us, it seems, have had a lot of nonsense, sometimes contradictory, drummed into our heads about supposed distinctions between "thinking" and "believing" and "feeling." I'm not a big fan of "feeling," I admit, but I'll save the discussion of those nuances for another time.

My point here is that "believe" has an unfortunate transitive property that can result in the kind of rhetorical roller-coaster ride you see above, and that search-and-replace editors need to keep that property in mind before they go mindlessly replacing every "think" with a "believe."

The Smith example is especially interesting because it is immune to the fix that usually renders "believe" usable. "They believe Bush lied" does the Moebius/roller-coaster/insert-your-own-analogy thing, but "They believe that Bush lied" is just as good as "They think Bush lied."

With Firefighter Smith, however, such a fix would result in an unfortunate "that that." In that case especially, there's nothing wrong with thinking.


Bill said...

I believe!

Dr Zen said...

Perhaps he said "believe" not "think" and is being quoted accurately (although he should have "believed" it).

Then what is left is that you do not believe "believe" can be used as a synonym for "think". This is simply your prescription, and is not borne out by its wide use as exactly that, codified at least in the dictionary I use. Personally, I think there's a hint of the ephemeral about "think" -- "I think it now that you mention it" -- that lacks in "I believe" but I wouldn't be inclined to correct one for the other in any case where either would do.

If your objection runs any deeper than that, I'm not seeing what it is.

I don't see why "They believe Bush lied" is any different from "They think Bush lied". Are you saying that you are compelled to "believe that [a sentence]"? I must have missed that rule.

Bill said...

A sentence intended to assert that people don't believe Bush should not say "they believe Bush," even if all is made well by the eventual appearance of the word "lied." "They think Bush ..." does not have this leading-the-reader-down-the-wrong-path problem. That is the difference; I never said it was a difference in meaning.

Bill said...

Excuse the hell out of me for trying, when it's possible, to avoid steering readers down the wrong road.

May I assume you're also fine with "He declared his love for her had died" and with allowing "reinforce" to break after the n?