Consider the following two sentences:

I don't think you love your father.

I think you don't love your father.

Is the second sentence correct? I was taught that it is wrong.

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    Both sentences are grammatical, and both mean the same thing. I believe the first one would be used more often, and that the second one puts more emphasis on the "I think" part. If I suddenly had the insight that you didn't love your father, I might say "I think you don't love your father." Otherwise, I'd probably use the first one. – Peter Shor Sep 11 '11 at 3:54

Both sentences are correct and mean the same thing, that is, "I believe that you do not love your father."

The first phrasing is vastly preferred by native English speakers for no real reason, other than perhaps it sounds a bit more polite due to its indirectness and implication of possible uncertainty.

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    And here is a Google Ngram confirming the "vastly preferred" part of this answer. Looking through the results, it appears to me that the hits of "I think you do not ..." are on average more confrontational than "I do not think you ...", although I don't really read it that way myself. – Peter Shor Sep 11 '11 at 19:38
  • @Peter: +1. I really like your "Google Ngram"! It seems that I can refer to it when I have similar questions. – Jack Sep 11 '11 at 20:38

There's a nice discussion of "negative raising (shifted or transferred negation)" at englishcorner that addresses your question fairly precisely.

The page mentioned above provides a reference (pp. 354-355 of Practical English Usage by Michael Swan) for its list of exceptions to negative raising, but unfortunately provides no reference in support of its main assertion, that native speakers "prefer to make the first verb negative instead of the second".

It appears that most native speakers will regard the two sentences as having the same meaning, but in my experience, some regard the form "I don't think x" as equivalent, for purposes of argumentation, to "I don't think." After all, it doesn't say what one thinks, it says what one doesn't think.

Both sentences are grammatically well-formed, and in casual conversation would usually be understood to mean the same thing. However, I suggest one avoid "I don't think x" constructions in formal writing or speaking.

A more-diffuse discussion of negative raising appears at englishpage.com.

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Neither sentence is incorrect.

If you say "I don't think you love your father", then you imply that you do not know whether or not I love my father.

If you say, "I think you don't love your father", that means that you think that you know that I don't love my father.

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    People routinely use "I don't think X" to mean "I think not-X". The second sentence is explicit that this is what's meant. – David Schwartz Sep 11 '11 at 3:05
  • @David: You mean that the second sentence is also correct "IN GRAMMAR", don't you? – Jack Sep 11 '11 at 3:12
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    They're both correct. The first sentence could mean that you don't know whether or not the person loves their father but it could also mean (and most people would think it does mean) that you think they don't love their father. The second sentence makes clear that you think they don't love their father. They grammar is fine in both sentences. – David Schwartz Sep 11 '11 at 3:17
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    For example, no English speaker would say (unless making some kind of joke) "My newborn niece doesn't think Obama is a good President." This is because "doesn't think X" or "don't think X" strongly implies a considered, affirmative rejection -- not a lack of thought. – David Schwartz Sep 11 '11 at 3:19
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    @Jeremy there is a difference between what things "mean" idiomatically vs. logically. It is worthwhile pointing out the logical meanings. – Karl Knechtel Sep 11 '11 at 8:39

I'm not a native speaker but from logical point I think these sentences are not quite the same. I don't think you love your father. By this you just doubt that the person loves his father. You are not sure. I think you don't love your father. This is more strong. You are sure and the stress goes on don't.

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  • I'd agree. There is more 'harsh truth' value in the second framing. While both sentences do make the same basic point, the usage can have different impact - the first makes a point. The second is a little more pointed and accusatory, and often in speech, I'd say that you'd end up stressing 'DON'T' strongly in the second case. – Akin Nov 15 '11 at 13:00

So this is our starting point, the question whether both sentences are valid (and as a follow-up: if yes, are they equal?).

I don't think you love your father. (1)

I think you don't love your father. (2)

I believe not only that the 2nd structure is valid, but I also think that the second structure allows to emphasise semantic aspects of the sentence in a way the 1st structure cannot.

Compare for instance the following sentences (using the 2nd structure), which differ by their differing emphasis :

  1. I think YOU don't love your father. ("you rather than someone else")
  2. I think you don't love your FATHER. ("your father rather than f.ex. your mother")
  3. I THINK you don't love your father. (expressing hesitation)

I believe that these shifts in emphasis are not as easily achievable with the 1ststructure (i.e. where the negation is in the main clause) But this is just a subjective and unverified opinion I hold.

I hope proficient users of English can comment on this aspect!

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