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.


markindenver said...

It started out innocently enough.

I began to think at parties now and then -- to loosen up.

Inevitably, though, one thought led to another, and soon I was more than just a social thinker.

I began to think alone -- "to relax," I told myself-- but I knew it wasn't true.

Thinking became more and more important to me, and finally I was thinking all the time.

That was when things began to sour at home. One evening I had turned off the TV and asked my wife about the meaning of life.

She spent that night at her mother's.

I began to think on the job.

I knew that thinking and employment don't mix, but I couldn't stop myself.

I began to avoid friends at lunchtime so I could read Thoreau and Kafka.

I would return to the office dizzied and confused,asking, "What is it exactly we are doing here?"

One day the! boss called me in. He said, "Listen, I like you, and it hurts me to say this, but your thinking has become a real problem. If you don't stop thinking on the job, you'll have to find another job."

This gave me a lot to think about. I came home early after my conversation with the boss.

"Honey," I confessed, "I've been thinking..."

"I know you've been thinking," she said, "and I want a divorce!"

"But Honey, surely it's not that serious."

"It is serious," she said, lower lip aquiver. "You think as much as college professors, and college professors don't make any money, so if you keep on thinking, we won't have any money!"

"That's a faulty syllogism," I said impatiently.

She exploded in tears of rage and frustration, but I was in no mood to deal with the emotional drama.

"I'm going to the library," I snarled as I stomped out the door. I headed for the library, in the mood for some Nietzsche. I roared into the parking lot with NPR on the radio and ran up to the big glass doors...

They didn't open. The library was closed.

To this day, I believe that a Higher Power was looking out for me that night.

Leaning on the unfeeling glass, whimpering for Zarathustra, a poster caught my eye.

"Friend, is heavy thinking ruining your life?" it asked. You probably recognize that line. It comes from the standard Thinker's Anonymous poster.

Which is why I am what I am today: a recovering thinker.

I never miss a TA meeting. At each meeting we watch a non-educational video; last week it was "Porky's."

Then we share experiences about how we avoided thinking since the last meeting.

I still have my job, and things are a lot better at home.

Life just seemed...easier, somehow, as soon as I stopped thinking. I believe the road to recovery is nearly complete for me.

Today, I registered to vote as a Republican.

Bill said...

I believe!

Opinionated Old Bat said...

John "said he believes," and I would have readily accepted that from one of the copy editors who worked for me when I was in trade journal publishing. But I made them draw the line at such statements as "John believes" or "Annabelle thinks." I reminded them that no matter what someone says, we can never know what was really going on inside that person's mind. I've retired from publishing and am a part-time writing coach for university students. Now I neither think nor believe that I'm in a position to enforce my personal "style book." But I do point out the distinction to the students and advise them to think about it.

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.

Stephen Jones said...

You're gilding the lily here Bill. Nobody but you has any problem with "I believe Bush lied". If the sentence were "I believe Bush, Cheny, Condolezza Rice, Rumslfeld, Wolfowitz and all the other neo-cons aren't telling the truth" you might have had a point.

And anyway, how likely is it that anyone believes Bush anymore? :)

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?

Stephen Jones said...

You're setting up strawmen. Misanalyzing 'reinforce' has nothing to do with the topic in question.
People may be temporarily fooled by 'he declared his love for her had died' but nobody is going to be fooled by 'He believed bush was lying.' If the sentence were 'He believed in God having nothing to do with evolution.', then you would have a point.