I am aware that the verb think can be used in the progressive form in some contexts, but it cannot be used in the progressive when someone is expressing one's opinion. But in this video a stand-up comedian who is seemingly an English native speaker uses it in the progressive form in the sense of having an opinion. It is it 4 minutes and 55 seconds. Here is the piece:

But what they were probably thinking was Joe farted and then fell down on his chair.

Does that mean that the sentences such I am thinking that he is a doctor are actually acceptable and natur in day-to-day conversation?

  • Your first example is idiomatically unexceptional for the specific context. But your second example would probably be seen as a substandard "Indian English" usage, so you should avoid it. Mar 8, 2020 at 14:25
  • Could you please explain why the first exemple is unexceptional, but my second sentence is off? Mar 8, 2020 at 15:51
  • It's not easy to explain exactly why there's a difference. Since you're nns yourself, your biggest problem will almost certainly be that you'll tend to overuse the continuous form (which will be noticed by the natives in many contexts). But in the exact cited example there's no hint of "Indian English". One point that may make a difference is the presence of the qualifier probably (though I can't say exactly why). Without that, what they thought was [that] Joe had farted rolls off the tongue easily enough, but generally we wouldn't want the Perfect there. Mar 8, 2020 at 16:11
  • ...maybe it's because the context is one where the stand-up comic is "painting a picture in words" of an amusing series of events - which extend over time. So the idea being conveyed isn't so much about what the people thought (their "immediate" reaction / assessment, an action that doesn't really "extend over time"). It's more about continuing to believe something that's inherently incongruous / amusing. Note - although your exact example "works", no native speaker would ever use continuous what they were probably believing was... in such contexts, if that helps. Mar 8, 2020 at 16:23
  • Could that be tha the use of "they were probably thinking" was some sort of background event against which the people concluded that Joe farted? Mar 8, 2020 at 16:23

1 Answer 1


The problem seems (as usual) to be stated in the initial false presupposition.

I am aware that the verb think can be used in the progressive form in some contexts,
but it cannot be used in the progressive when someone is expressing one's opinion.

I have no idea where this comes from, but it sounds like something a teacher might improvise on the spur of the moment when they couldn't answer a student's question. In some schools, this would then be passed on as The Correct Answer for the next ten generations. It's not a grammatical rule of English, however.

Pretty much any predicate can be used in the Progressive construction, if the speaker wants to indicate that whatever state or activity the predicate describes is not over yet at the time referred to.

In English, optional constructions like Passive or Progressive don't change the basic meaning of the sentence, but they do guide the interpretation of the predicates. Think can express an action, or it can express a state of mind. Mental process verbs are odd that way -- all mental process is imaginary, after all, so we can imagine it any way we please, as stative or active.

When the Progressive is used, however, it simply means that whatever thinking is being referred to is not instantaneous, as either state or action, but rather has an extension in time beyond the time the thinking is referred to. The thinker is not done thinking yet, in other words.

That's all, really, if you're only concerned with think. However, note that think is only one of many English mental process predicates, including emotion predicates and sense verbs, all of which have their own special unique grammars. Dictionaries are the wrong place to look for answers to grammatical questions; they deal with words, not constructions, but English grammar is all about constructions, not individual words.

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