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Here is a sentence from "Essential Grammar in Use" book by Raymond Murphy:

Did you enjoy the film ? Yes, I thought it was very good.

The correct answer in key section is "thought", but why not to use "think" instead:

Did you enjoy the film ? Yes, I think it was very good.

It looks like you thought in the past and have another thought now.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It does indeed mean you had that thought in the past, while watching the movie. It doesn’t automatically tell us anything one way of the other as to what you think now; and I think the natural inference without further information is that probably you still think it’s good.

In some contexts, particularly, if the ‘pastness’ is unexpected or emphasised, one can indeed infer from the use of past tense that something has since changed. For example:

A: What do you think of Obama?

B: Well, when he was campaigning, I thought he was very good.

The implication here is: “…but I don’t like him so much now”. But this implication isn’t automatic from the use of past tense; it comes from the context, from the fact that if B still likes Obama then a more natural response would be just “Yes, I do.”

But in the OP’s question, the tense of the answer is simply following the tense of the question (the most natural grammatical thing to do), so there’s nothing particularly suggesting any change of opinion.

On the other hand, the present-tense “I think it was very good” would also be fine in this example, and would give the impression that you probably also thought it was good at the time you watched it. Although again, in some contexts an emphatic use of the present tense could imply that things were different in the past:

A: Did you enjoy music lessons as a child?

B: I’m grateful now that my parents made me take them.

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4  
Note that we sometimes have a tendency to use the past tense even when the present tense would have been much more logical, owing to a natural preference for matching tenses: "What was the name of that girl you spoke to on the phone? I need it for the party." I want to know what her name is now; if she changed it, her new name would be more relevant than her old name: and yet I say "what was her name". A more extreme example: "what was the name of this sculpture again that she is starting on tomorrow?". There is just an implicit past context, no actual past reference. –  Cerberus Jan 12 '11 at 19:07
    
You could say that "what was the name of this sculpture" really stands for "I knew this name in the past but I forgot [so what is it?]". Perhaps we use the past tense here because our "firmest" link to this name was in the past, when we did know it. Or perhaps you could say that a thing exists in our mind to a lesser extent when we know less about it, which we extend accordingly to its existence in the real word. Speculation. –  Cerberus Jan 12 '11 at 19:12
    
@Cerberus: I guess this sort of thing is why some languages include “epistemological” information in their verb forms: so instead of having to decide between “it is the case now that…” and “it was the case in the past that…”, we would have a tense indicating exactly what we want here, “I learned in the past that…” (Sadly I can’t now remember any of the examples of languages that do this; it was in Guy Deutscher’s lovely Through the Language Glass that I came across it.) –  PLL Jan 14 '11 at 18:26

The key is the tense of the question.

Did you enjoy the film?

The question is asking about whether you enjoyed it in the past, therefore it is appropriate to answer in the past tense. If the question is:

Is it a good film?

Then you would say

Yes, I think it is very good.

If you use the construction

I think it was very good.

Then you are implying doubt. I think it was good, but I'm not sure.

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I watched the movie (in the past). At the time that I was watching it (in the past), I thought that it was very good.

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