Back in high school, my English teacher told me that we should always use "I don't think" than "I think...not..."

For example, the sentence "I think he doesn't like it" is wrong - we should use "I don't think he likes it".

But over the years, I have found many native speakers also use "I think...not...", so I am wondering if it is grammatically correct to say a sentence like "I think he doesn't like it".

Many thanks


  • 6
    There is exactly one rule you must remember: Sturgeon's Law. 90% of English teachers are crap.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 11:16
  • 2
    That's a good rule, and applies to lots of other things, too. Another useful rule in this context is Negative-Raising. Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 14:12
  • 2
    Nothing wrong with the original sentence, as I read it.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 17:23

3 Answers 3


Changing the order of the words often changes the meaning or nuance.

  1. "I don't think he likes it" is the normal formulation. It focuses on the thoughts and opinions of the speaker. Its purpose is to make a commentary.

  2. "I think he doesn't like it" can be used as a way of contradicting expectations, e.g.

"Don't poke the cat with that stick."
"We're just playing."
"Well, I think he doesn't like it."

This focuses on and directs the attention towards the feelings of the cat -- its purpose is to change someone else's perceptions.

Note that the basic meaning here is, "He doesn't like it. " The addition of "I think" does not indicate doubt on the part of the speaker. It is used to make the statement seem less harsh.


Yes, it is grammatically correct to say a sentence like "I think he doesn't like it". Just be aware that such a rephrasing usually changes the meaning or requires a particular context.

  • Whilst I agree that both are idiomatic, I think the distinction in when each is used is slightly more subtle that you imply. As regards poking the cat, I feel sure I don't think he likes it would work just as well. That is not to say that circumstances exist when I think he doesn't like it would not be appropriate.
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 11:52
  • @WS2 - Whether they are equally possible (or appropriate) in the example I gave is different from saying they are equivalent in meaning or intention. I say they aren't. I'd be very interested to see your version where one of the statements would actually be inappropriate.That would bolster my answer even further. I didn't come up with one so I'd welcome an example.. Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 12:00
  • Well, I think the obvious instance for the second is if you were stressing and repeating the fact. If there were a serious dispute, for example, where one family member was saying I think he likes it (e.g. grandfather being given the bumps on his birthday), someone might respond with Well I think he doesn't (like it). But as you point out it is difficult to preclude use of the alternative altogether.
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 14:39
  • @WS2 - Yes, that's a good example. My main point was say that the sentence, "I think he doesn't like it" is actually correct. The OP states that it is wrong. I then gave an example of its use. I don't claim it is compulsory in that sentence - just possible and correct. Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 14:51
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    @AndyT Umm! You say I don't mean something different by picking one over the other. I think you probably do, more than you think i.e.mean something different by using different semantics. How people say things is often as revealing as what they say. Of course some people have favourite expressions - but if they change and go for something different one time - that would seem to me to be telling us something.
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 17:23

"I think he doesn't like it" is grammatically correct.

"I don't think he likes it" grammatically means "there is nothing to make me believe that he likes it" but is used idiomatically to mean "I think he doesn't like it".

Either phrase is completely acceptable, and would normally be taken to mean the same thing. Your English teacher is teaching you to pass English exams, and some marks in language tests are normally award for using idiomatic phrases and sounding "natural". Hence, within that context, I think your teacher's statement of never to use "I think...not..." was fine. However, in the real world, you can use either and there is no problem.

  • Thanks @chasly, I did indeed. The hazards of starting to write a sentence then coming back to it later...
    – AndyT
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 15:06

Both sentences are correct, but different in accents. When you say "I do not think he likes it." you express that you can not confirm that he like it, may be he love it or may be he afraid of it and so on. But when you say "I think he does not like it", you mean you know that HE does not like IT.

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