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How different is (1) 'I thought they must be poor' from (2) 'I thought they had to be poor'? Does (2) emphasize David did think so but that he does not think they are poor any more now that the counselor told him they are not? I think with (1) you can't tell whether he still thinks the drawings are terrible or not. Is this right? (And I think you hardly say 'I thought they had to be poor.')

Counselor: David, you are so bright. So sensitive! Just look at these drawings! How marvelous! David: (whispering to himself) Gee, and here I thought they must be poor! (A cartoon 'Stitches' by David Small)

Is he still thinking they are poor? Or, is he now convinced they are rather good? With 'must do/be' after 'thought,' is it always like so?

=recap of my question=

I want to know if the speaker still thinks the drawings are in bad quality in (1) and (2), and if you could extend that observation to other circumstances where 'must'/'had to' is used after 'thought.'

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I tried to answer this question but I am having an awful lot of trouble. Can you please try to rephrase where your confusion is coming from or what you need explained? – Jeremy Sep 4 '11 at 7:42
Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/36521/… – Henry Sep 4 '11 at 11:45

I think that "must" is equivalent to "have to" in this particular usage. See this Wikipedia entry on English Modal Verb:

Must and have to can also be used to express strongly held beliefs (the epistemic rather than deontic use), such as in "It must be here somewhere" or "It has to be here somewhere", with the same meaning as "I believe that it's very likely that it is here somewhere."

Based on the sentence, we can surmise that David is expressing a strongly held belief that the drawings are below the quality that he expected it to be. The phrase "and here I thought" modifies that belief and probably indicates that he is being disabused of that belief by the statement of the counselor.

with regards to epistemic vs. deontic:

Modal auxiliary verbs give more information about the function of the main verb that follows it. Although having a great variety of communicative functions, these functions can all be related to a scale ranging from possibility ("may") to necessity ("must").

Within this scale there are two functional divisions:

  • epistemic, concerned with the theoretical possibility of propositions being true or not true (including likelihood, and certainty);
  • and deontic, concerned with possibility and necessity in terms of freedom to act (including ability, permission, and duty)

The following sentences illustrate the two uses of must: - epistemic: You must be starving. (= "It is necessarily the case that you are starving.") - deontic: You must leave now. (= "You are required to leave now.") - ambiguous: You must speak Spanish.

  • epistemic = "It is surely the case that you speak Spanish (e.g., after having lived in Spain for ten years)."
  • deontic = "It is a requirement that you speak Spanish (e.g., if you want to get a job in Spain)."
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So, when you hear 'thought X must be Y' or 'thought X must do Y,' could you assume the speaker still thinks 'X must be Y' or 'X must do Y'? – Sssamy Sep 4 '11 at 11:36
@Sssamy: I don't believe you can make this assumption either way. If you want to imply that you don't think it anymore, you should say "I'd thought they must be poor." If you want to say that you think it now, you should say "I still think they must be poor." – Peter Shor Sep 4 '11 at 12:19
Since there's no antecedent reason given as to why David thinks his drawings are poor, I think both must be and had to be are irrelevant distractions. The verb may just as well be are (or were, if you want to use past tense). IMHO, must/had do are poor choices in the first place - they're just sloppy "noise words" that become awkward in the past tense. You'd end up saying "I [had] thought they had to/must have been poor" instead of the straightforward "I [had] thought they were poor"... – FumbleFingers Sep 4 '11 at 12:33
@Peter Shor: I think you're saying the same as me. Whether David still thinks his work is poor comes down to whether or not he inserts that first [had], but he's made a rod for his own back by complicating the original sentence with must/had to be. – FumbleFingers Sep 4 '11 at 12:35

It's a subtle difference, but I think in my dialect, "had to be" in this case would be slightly more likely to imply an obligation imposed by rules ("I thought you had to be poor to get help from the government"), whereas "must" would be more likely to imply a supposition.

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I think the obligation/supposition distinction normally comes from context, but I'm interested to find that must comply outweighs have to comply by 10 to 1, but with assume, "must" is only 3 times more common than "have to". It seems on average people tend to the reverse of your usage/interpretation. – FumbleFingers Sep 4 '11 at 19:56

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