Could you tell me if I want to inquire a person what he does and he answers that he writes fiction and I tell him "I thought you wrote poetry." Or "I thought you WRITE poetry.", the action is in the present - the writing .


In my view, without more context, the following sentence has three possible interpretations

I thought you wrote poetry

  1. In the past the speaker knew, or they had been led to believe, that the listener wrote poetry. The speaker may be expressing their surprise (I was wrong!) or disbelief (where did I get this idea from?) that the listener is not a poet. The statement is equivalent to: “Someone told me you wrote poetry but I now realise that this is not true.”

  2. The speaker expresses their uncertainty as to whether the listener writes poetry now (this may also include the past but we have no way of knowing). The speaker is using the past simple to suggest uncertainty in the present. It is the hesitant equivalent to the statement
    I think you write poetry” = “I think you are a poet"

  3. The speaker discovers that the listener is indeed someone who writes poetry. By stressing the first verb (thought) the speaker is asserting that they had held this belief in the past but they were not certain, this contrasts with the “now”, their finding out the truth. In other words, their former belief has been confirmed. “I thought you wrote poetry (and I was right)"


/I thought you wrote poetry/. Thought [at some point in the past] and wrote occurred in the definite past. That is what I thought you did (for a living or in life), which implies, now that we are talking, this is either TRUE or NOT TRUE.

A sentence such as: /I though you wrote poetry/ is uttered at a present time when the person saying it is referring to a definite time when he or she thought a particular thing about someone or something. But, the utterance is uttered in the present. In other words, /I thought you wrote poetry/ is the past tense of /I think you write poetry/.

I thought you wrote poetry but now I see you're writing fiction.


Well, John, I think you write poetry [generally] even if you think it's fiction.

OR **Well, John, I think you're writing poetry [these days] even if you think it's fiction. OR [even if think you're writing fiction].

When you use the simple past thought/wrote, there is an implied comparison to the present, where you might think something different.

I think [something now]. I thought [something different about the past: wrote, were writing, had been writing]

Simple past (thought) plus simple present is not grammatical in English, afaik.

I'm thinking [as we're speaking] that you write poetry [generally] or are writing [these days] poetry.

  • I agree with you on almost all counts. I only don't agree on "wrote" occurring ONLY in the past and on the possibility of "you" writing fiction being true now. However, you make clear with your first example that the speaker's belief was false, and you make a point when you claim that "thought" + "write/are writing" is not grammatical, while "think" (not necessarily "am thinking") + "write/are writing" is. I upvoted to counteract the - IMO - unjustified downvote you received, because your answer does shed some light on two important points.
    – Gustavson
    Feb 12 '17 at 15:36
  • @Gustavson You misundertood me perhaps: When you say: /I thought you wrote/, you are saying it in the present, but the idea refers back to a previous time when you originally had the thought. Thanks for your support. :)
    – Lambie
    Feb 12 '17 at 17:04
  • In other words: What do you think I do? Answer: I think you write poetry [a general idea] but until now I thought you wrote fiction.
    – Lambie
    Feb 12 '17 at 17:12
  • I understood what you meant to say. Perhaps the way you put it was confusing. I'm currently looking forward to having a discussion with RichF who, unlike us, claims that "I thought you write" is grammatical. Can I ask you if you are a native speaker of English? RichF seems to be. I am not...
    – Gustavson
    Feb 12 '17 at 17:19
  • @Gustavson Yes, perhaps it was confusing. Yes, native speaker, dyed-in-the-wood native speaker but I do so wish I spoke Swedish or Danish or even Norwegian. I am hooked on cold country police series and movies. :) In today's world, there's a lot of mis-education.
    – Lambie
    Feb 12 '17 at 17:21

Both are common ways to express it. Using write sounds better to me as well, because it does not have the potential implication that he has stopped writing poetry. That said, the natural interpretation of the sentence, "I thought you wrote poetry." is that he still does.

  • 1
    "I thought you write..." is ungrammatical.
    – Gustavson
    Feb 12 '17 at 15:38
  • 1
    @Gustavson How so? I thought (in the past) you write (in the continuing present) poetry. Not to be argumentative, but do you contend that the continuing present could not have existed in the past? As a perception, then? Compare: I thought (in the past) you wrote (in the further past) poetry. // My primary point in the answer is that these are things I hear and people say commonly. I did not mention grammar at all.
    – RichF
    Feb 12 '17 at 15:53
  • (By "argumentative", I meant "hostile". I realize by the dictionary meaning I made an argument. It was a friendly argument though, and by the time I saw the inaccuracy, it was too late to edit.)
    – RichF
    Feb 12 '17 at 16:04
  • To me, the problem lies with the verb "thought." If I say I thought something was true, the natural implication is it no longer is. It would be different with some other verb, for example: "I knew you wrote poetry," or "I imagined you wrote poetry." The second sentence is typically ambiguous: (1) I imagined (in the past) you wrote poetry (in the past), or (2) I imagined (in the - probably recent - past) you wrote poetry (now): it may be the case that you (still) do or that you no longer do or never did.
    – Gustavson
    Feb 12 '17 at 16:21
  • 1
    By the way, at GB there are no relevant examples of "I thought you write," while there are 5,150 examples of "I thought you wrote." This one: books.google.com.ar/… is particularly enlightening for the question at issue here.
    – Gustavson
    Feb 12 '17 at 16:31

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