For those who came in late: From what I understand, English stative verbs don't take the progressive. We can use progressive in utterances with dynamic verbs. Witness "I'm eating," "She's running," and "The Martians are melting the tanks." But we can't use progressive in utterances with stative verbs. Witness these: "*I'm believing in Santa," "*She's knowing the way home," or "*The Martians are owning California."

We know that the verb "think" isn't always stative. So we have these perfectly well-formed English messages with "think" in the progressive. "Don't disturb her; she's thinking." "You aren't thinking about leaving, are you?" "You've been thinking bad thoughts!"

But it seemed to me, until recently, that "think" was always stative when it took a that- clause as a complement. "I think that we should end this card game," was and is grammatical, but four decades ago when I was young, "*I'm thinking that we should end this card game" was not.

This seems to have changed. Now I hear (or rather "now I'm hearing") "think" with both progressive and that-clause complements all the time.

Are we witnessing the death of stative "think"? If not, am I missing out on a fact about the usage of "think" and verbs like it that's been around for a long time?

  • You may also be interested in the usage of the progressive aspect in Indian English – acattle Apr 1 '13 at 2:31
  • Is there anyway to make this cross-linguistic or would it be a better fit for EL&U? – acattle Apr 1 '13 at 2:32
  • I think it's okay for this list: years ago when I was still in school, virtually all of the syntax we studied in linguistics courses was English syntax. My smattering of knowledge about language typology came later. – James Grossmann Apr 1 '13 at 16:54
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    It's McLanguage - I'm loving it! – hippietrail Apr 7 '13 at 9:26
  • @hippietrail I think you mean that you are lovin' it. – acattle Apr 7 '13 at 11:54

Yes, this usage has been around for a long time and you're missing out. A simple look at Google's Ngram viewer shows that the rate of occurrence for both "think that" and "thinking that" have held relatively consistent since 1800. Granted, Ngram Viewer only has data up to 2008, but it does suggest that the progressive construct "thinking that..." is not undergoing any particular surge in popularity.

Of course, you might argue that those results are based on books and the phenomenon you're talking about is in informal speech. Unfortunately, I have no data on how this trend relates to informal speech but I would still say the results of Ngram Viewer evidence a historical precedent.

Additionally, expanding somewhat on jlawler's answer, the progressive construct seems to place an emphasis on the act of thinking, creating slightly different semantic contexts:

(1) It's a bad idea
(2) I think it's a bad idea
(3) I'm thinking it's a bad idea

To me (native Canadian-English speaker), these three sentences show different levels of confidence in the opinion "it's a bad idea". Without any "think" construct, (1) implies absolute certainty. The stative construct (2) implies a high level of certainty but leaves room for doubt (for illustration, let's say 80-95% confidence). Finally, the progressive construct (3) allows room for much more doubt (maybe 55-70% confidence). This is reflected below.

(4) It's a bad idea but I could be wrong
(5) I think it's a bad idea but I could be wrong
(6) I'm thinking it's a bad idea but I could be wrong

While none of these sentences are ungrammatical, (4) seems marginally unacceptable to me. Given a choice between (5) and (6), I find (6) more natural.

Along with this perceived confidence, (1), (2), and (3) also differ in perceived forcefulness. I can think of numerous times where I have used "think" to soften the impact of my opinion when talking to a superior.

In summary, there seem to be multiple stylistic and societal factors which influence the choice of the progressive "think" construct over stative "think" construct (over no "think" at all). Combined with the historical precedent, I don't believe progressive "think" is a new phenomenon nor that it is overtaking stative "think" in any meaningful way.

One final note, as I stated above, my answer relies heavily on my own personal intuition. I'd be very interested to hear what other native speakers think about my interpretation. It's entirely possible that I am part of the tend of this "dying stative 'think'" but I see no evidence suggesting that such a trend even exists.

  • Yes, (4) strikes me as semantically incoherent, because "It's a bad idea" states a putative truth or fair assessment, and "but I could be wrong" is said of statements whose truth or fairness is in question. – James Grossmann Apr 1 '13 at 16:52
  • Both answers were extremely helpful, but by a narrow margin, acattle's answer gets the check mark for pointing out that progressive "think" isn't all that new. – James Grossmann Apr 1 '13 at 16:53
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    Interestingly, I find (6) odd, probably because it's almost redundant. "I'm thinking it's a bad idea" (and I can imagine the intonation that goes along with this) is weak enough that adding "but I could be wrong" is already implied. – Mark D Apr 3 '13 at 22:50
  • Some occurrences of "thinking" in "thinking that" could be the verbal noun, not the progressive (Thinking that you're the best would be a mistake). Looking at "I am thinking that" in particular (books.google.com/ngrams/…) does suggest it's more popular now than, say, 50 years ago. (And yes, I know, the "that" could also be the pronoun, not the conjunction). – dainichi Apr 8 '13 at 2:58

What happens is that when we use a normally stative predicate in a construction like progressive or imperative that requires an active predicate, we are signalling that what we are actually referring to is some action associated with the normally stative predicate.

So what Rodin's bronze statue is doing is thinking. This means doing something that gives the impression of one's being absorbed in thought. Since there is no standard behavioral accompaniment for think, this could be almost anything; Rodin certainly chose a common behavior to depict, but there are plenty of others.

Plus, there is the active process of consideration before decision, as in

  • I'm thinking about it; give me a minute, OK?

And also various active phrasal verbs and idioms

  • He's overthinking his business plan.
  • Think it over/through; you'll see.
  • You'll have to think up a new logo.

But none of these are the mental stative sense of think, as in

  • I think it's a bad idea.

This, however, can be made into a progressive inchoative, as in

  • I'm beginning/coming to think it's a bad idea.

and that in turn can be shortened by simply making think progressive

  • I'm thinking it's a bad idea.
  • "Shortened"? Perhaps you could explain that bit a little more. If there is a relation between "I was beginning to think" (is this common?) and "I was thinking" (now very common informally), I think that is what we should focus on. But isn't this rather just an example of the general trend to use the continuous instead of the simple aspect in informal English? Cf. I'm loving it. – Cerberus Apr 1 '13 at 1:17
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    That's a good example. I'm loving it means 'I'm coming to love it (despite my expectations)'. Or is intended to mean, anyway. It's a squeal of pleased surprise, a nice image. The point is that the listener will look in well-established conventional places for a meaning, and will usually succeed. Pseudo-rules of the X is a Y and all Ys must be Zed are merely ground states; add a reason to expect it, and anything can be interpreted as practically anything else. Otherwise religion and poetry would be impossible. – jlawler Apr 1 '13 at 3:11
  • Getting back to progressive "think," I'm thinking that the inchoative usage that you illustrate could be used by a person who is trying to decide between alternative conclusions and comes to believe that one conclusion is more likely than others? e.g. "I'm thinking that the red dress would be best for the party." (as opposed to the green or violet dresses) – James Grossmann Apr 1 '13 at 16:46
  • Yup. That's the way it goes. The construction chosen governs the interpretation of the lexical items in it, just as the lexical items chosen govern other choices, like prepositions and articles. It's not a simple matter of looking up properties in a dictionary. – jlawler Apr 1 '13 at 18:17

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