4

There are certain cases where the phrases "I guess" and "I'm guessing" are both legal to use. For example:

Q: Why do birds fly south for the winter? A: I guess it's because it's warmer down south.

Q: Why do birds fly south for the winter? A: I'm guessing it's because it's warmer down south.

Q: Why shouldn't you press this button during flight? A: I guess it would make the airplane hard to control.

Q: Why shouldn't you press this button during flight? A: I'm guessing it would make the airplane hard to control.

In these cases, is there a difference between "I guess" and "I'm guessing"—some subtle nuance that one phrase has but the other phrase doesn't have? Or are the two phrases exactly the same?

The impression I've gotten as a native speaker is that "I guess" doesn't literally mean "I guess"; it means something more like "I conclude". In particular, the phrase "I guess" seems to indicate that I am satisfied with my own conclusion and I am no longer looking for information. The phrase "I'm guessing", on the other hand, indicates that I'm uncertain about what I'm saying, and I am interested in more information.

So in my mind, the four answers above are probably saying:

I guess it's because it's warmer down south. (I thought about it just now, and my conclusion is that it's probably because it's warmer down south. I'm not sure about this, but I'm not going to try to gather more information.)

I'm guessing it's because it's warmer down south. (My best guess is that it's because it's warmer down south. Do you have more information?)

I guess it would make the airplane hard to control. (I thought about it just now, and I concluded that it would make the airplane hard to control. I'm pretty confident in my conclusion, but I'm not sure that that's the actual reason why you shouldn't press that button.)

I'm guessing it would make the airplane hard to control. (My best guess is that it's because it would make the airplane hard to control. Is that right—would it actually make the airplane hard to control? And is that actually the reason why you shouldn't press the button?)

Am I on the mark here, or am I just seeing a distinction where no distinction exists?

(Note that I'm only asking about cases where both phrases are legal. I'm not interested in an explanation of cases where one phrase makes sense but the other does not, such as "Are you coming? / Yeah, I guess" and "Are you sure? / No, I'm just guessing".)

  • I think you answered your own question, and rather well at that. – Global Charm Sep 15 '17 at 22:29
  • @GlobalCharm If I am perfectly on the mark here, then the ideal answer would say "yep, you're right" along with some kind of evidence or reasoning. I don't have any evidence or reasoning besides "that's how it seems to me". – Tanner Swett Sep 15 '17 at 23:28
  • Something I didn't mention in my original post is how sometimes "I guess" is used with a fact that the speaker is certain of: "You rode a bicycle across the United States? Well, I guess not everyone can afford to fly." – Tanner Swett Sep 16 '17 at 5:03
  • 1
    I'm guessing that you're just looking for confirmation, but I guess there's no harm providing it. :) – Lawrence Sep 16 '17 at 6:37
2

The OED does provide a separate definition for I guess; It is definition 6:

I guess: sometimes used, with playful moderation of statement, in reference to what the speaker regards as a fact or a secure inference. Hence colloq., orig. in the northern U.S. (sometimes with omission of the pronoun) = ‘I am pretty sure’.

The three earliest attested uses are from texts written by John Locke, suggesting that he might have popularized the sense with this kind of meaning. The earliest citation is from Some Thoughts Concerning Education, dated 1692, so it's not an incredibly recent idiomatic turn.

Hence, your intuition was correct when you wrote:

The impression I've gotten as a native speaker is that "I guess" doesn't literally mean "I guess"; it means something more like "I conclude".

As a final note, I guess isn't limited to this sense of the word implying something close to certainty. It could still be used in a phrase that meant an actual guess, but such a use would be distinguishable through context.

Jim: "I guess there are 150 jellybeans in the jar." (sense 1: a real guess)

Sally: "I counted, and there are 287 jellybeans."

Jim: "Oh. I guess I was wrong." (sense 6)

As you can probably imagine, had Jim replied with the present continuous tense of "guess," it would have seemed strange.

Jim: "Oh. I'm guessing I was wrong."

Sally (confused): "Yeah, you were definitely wrong."

This seems to be exactly the distinction you described in the question, so the answer is yes, you're on the mark.

1

you could be 'seeing' or picking up on a subtle distinction between the two because of their tenses.

i guess

is a present simple tense

but

i'm guessing

is a present continuous tense.

the difference between the two is that a present simple tense describes a fixed/unchanging situation while a present continuous tense describes a temporary/unfinished situation:

present simple: the speaker is portraying that they're not sure about their guess and not necessarily willing to change their guess.

i guess... (I thought about it just now, and I concluded that it would make the airplane hard to control. I'm pretty confident in my conclusion, but I'm not sure that that's the actual reason why you shouldn't press that button).

present continuous: the speaker is portraying that they're not sure about it and may like to change their guess (with more information).

i'm guessing... (My best guess is that it's because it would make the airplane hard to control. Is that right — would it actually make the airplane hard to control? And is that actually the reason why you shouldn't press the button?)

if i too am seeing a distinction where none exists then i guess someone else will provide a better answer.

i'm guessing they could also cast a downvote...because they disagree.

  • I don't think this explains the entire difference between "I guess" and "I'm guessing", though. I feel like other simple-present phrases, like "I conjecture" and "I make a guess", don't have the same connotation of "I'm not looking for additional information". The phrase "I guess" feels like an idiom whose meaning happens to be more or less similar to its literal meaning. – Tanner Swett Sep 16 '17 at 5:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.