Phrase of the day: I think not

One of the courses we ran this July as part of our very first Lexical Lab summer school was ADVANCED LANGUAGE AND CULTURE, which lasted two weeks and which explored everything from the class system to education to Brexit to women’s issues to race and immigration. It was a wonderful course to design and write – and even more wonderful to teach, given the diversity of teachers we had studying with us. Participants came from Estonia, Brazil, Poland, Sweden, and Spain, and we learned as much from all of them as we hope they did from us.

One day, we watched a short clip from a wonderful British sitcom called Outnumbered. It’s basically about a middle-class couple in London bringing up three kids (who outnumber them!). The clip is from an episode called Keeping up with the Joneses, a phrase which is central to a full understanding of English culture! If you accuse someone of only doing something – like buying a new car or sending their kids to a private school – because they feel have to, in order to continue looking as succesful and wealthy as they believe their neighbours look, then they’re just doing it to keep up with the Joneses.

Anyway, there’s a lovely moment in this short clip – which you can watch here – where one mum is struggling to control her boisterous boys and her more upper-middle-class neighbour, whose children are all neat, well-behaved and disturbingly quiet, says kindly “Mine are just the same”. The response (said under her breath) is “I think not!”

As we were discussing the subtleties of the clip afterwards, one teacher asked what the difference was between I think not and I don’t think so, and I realised I’d never actually looked at the two phrases together. I don’t think so is most commonly used to respond to questions about the future, as in these short exchanges:

Is Nikita coming today?

> I don’t think so. He texted me earlier to say he was ill.

Do you reckon it’ll rain this afternoon?

> I don’t think so. It looks alright out there now.

I think not, though, far more frequently expresses a negative atitude towards whatever it is you’re disagreeing with – as in the clip above. Here’s one more example:

In early August, I took my family camping. After five weeks of summer school, I needed a bit of a break. However, a break was not what we got! Instead, what we got was torrential rain – despite the previous reassurances of the weather forecast. As we sat huddled together in our tent with the rain beating down on us and the winds howling all around, my wife grabbed her phone and shoved a page under my nose. “Look!” she said, “Steyning. 21 degrees and sunny”. I peeped outside and retreated very quickly afterwards. “I THINK NOT!” I snarled to no-one in particular!

Click here to learn more about the Lexical Lab summer school.

  • Have you ever looked at the weather forecast and thought I think not!? When? Why?
  • Can you remember the last thing someone said to you that you wanted to say I think not! in response to?
  • Do you like going camping? Why? / Why not?
  • Do you know anyone who’s done something just to keep up with the Joneses?
  • What’s your favourite sitcom? Why?
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