There are two Japanese verbs that are often translated as "think" in English: 思う and 考える. Although they are both fairly common words, textbooks usually don't adequately address the difference between these two, leaving learners wondering how to use them.
Since both 思う and 考える translate to "think," it's obvious that there's a fine line between the two words. There are times they can be used interchangeably, and even native speakers sometimes have a hard time explaining why and how a choice between the two is made. On the other hand, there are also times they are not interchangeable, and they carry distinctly different nuances, which the go-to translation "think" doesn't capture.
Since both 思う and 考える translate to "think," it's obvious that there's a fine line between the two words.
To better help you understand the difference between 思う and 考える, this article is divided into two major sections that focus on a different "type" of thinking: active thinking, and sharing opinions. Making this distinction is helpful because the way a sentence is formed and whether 思う or 考える is more natural in a given situation depends on which type of thinking you want to express.
By the end of this article, you'll understand what 思う and 考える really mean, giving you a better grasp on the differences between them. With a deeper understanding of their nuances, we hope you'll be able to confidently use them in your own Japanese.
- Thinking with Your Heart or Your Head
- Active Thinking
- Sharing Opinions
- So What Did You "Think?"
Prerequisites: This article assumes you already know hiragana and katakana. If you need to brush up, have a look at our Ultimate Hiragana Guide and Ultimate Katakana Guide. Beginners who know of the two words 思う and 考える can enjoy reading this article, but to get the most out of it, knowledge about the particle を for marking objects and と for quoting would be nice to have.
Thinking with Your Heart or Your Head
思う is something spontaneous, like thoughts that just bubble up naturally. 考える, on the other hand, is all about using your head to reach a conclusion.
Before we get into different kinds of thinking, let's look at the most basic difference between 思う and 考える. 思う is something spontaneous, like thoughts that just bubble up naturally. Picture it like this — 思う comes from your heart, rather than your head. 考える, on the other hand, is all about using your head to reach a conclusion. When you imagine 考える, picture cogs spinning and gears turning in your brain.
But wait… 思う sounds a whole lot like "feel," doesn't it? It's true, and 思う does share some similarities with 感じる, the Japanese word for "feel." While 感じる is not the focus of this article, it's good to keep in mind that it is more similar to 思う than it is to 考える. In fact, 思う can even be translated as "I feel like…" in some cases.
If the difference between 思う and 考える feels a bit cloudy, don't worry. We'll demonstrate their differences again and again throughout the article with lots of actual examples.
To begin, what do we mean by "active thinking?" Active thinking is when you are purposefully focusing your thoughts on something. For this reason, you'll often see particle を marking that "something" you're thinking about. Grammatically speaking, particle を tells us what the object of the sentence is. For example:
- I eat ramen.
In this example, を comes after ラーメン, telling us it's the object of the sentence. In other words, it tells us what is eaten. When we see particle を in an 思う or 考える sentence, it too marks the object, and tells us what is being thought of.
Due to its emphasis on purposeful thinking, 考える is often used for active thinking. In these sentences, we're usually talking about thinking that is goal-oriented, and seeks to reach a logical conclusion. While 思う does have some active thinking uses too, it is a bit more limited. This is because 思う has a less "actionable" feel to it, due to its more spontaneous "in your heart" nuance. When 思う is used for active thinking, it doesn't result in a tangible conclusion.
思う and 考える for Thinking About Something
When 思う takes an object with particle を for active thinking, the nuance of "think" is that you "emotionally care about" the object. Let's see what this looks like when 地球の未来, or "future of the earth" is the object of 思う:
- thinking about the future of the earth
(emotionally caring about the future of the earth)
- future of the earth
Depending on the context, there are various ways to interpret the sentence above, but this could refer to picturing in your mind, meditating on, praying for, or being worried about the future of the earth. If you remember that 思う is "thinking from your heart," it makes sense that 思う represents these kinds of mental activities. What happens if we switch to 考える?
- thinking about the future of the earth
(logically trying to figure out the future of the earth)
考える is a more methodical kind of thinking. It might involve analyzing data, doing research, having discussions, etc. For that reason, 地球の未来を考える sounds like it could be the name of a conference or discussion about ecology.
As a side note, in this use, 〜のこと (stuff regarding 〜) is often used for both 思う and 考える as in 地球の未来のことを思う/考える. Adding 〜のこと adds another layer of abstraction to what's being thought of, and implies that related topics are also considered. For example, 地球の未来のこと suggests that things related to the future of the earth — natural habitats, the environment, public health, etc. — will be considered in addition to the earth itself. Adding 〜のこと often makes this "thinking about" expression sound more natural.
考える for Coming up With Ideas or Plans
To come up with ideas or plans, you have to "think," right? Which verb do we use for active thinking that results in ideas or plans, such as brainstorming or planning? 思う doesn't work for this because it doesn't result in a tangible conclusion, so the goal-oriented 考える is the best fit.
- I think about Japanese quizzes.
(I try to come up with Japanese quizzes.)
- I think about a theme for a party.
(I plan a theme for a party.)
考える for Decision-Making
Just like we only use 考える for goal-oriented activities like planning, 思う doesn't work for decision-making type thinking either. Let's say you're at a restaurant, trying to decide what to eat. Then a server comes to your table to take your order. You say something like:
- I'll think a little more.
もう少し思います won't work here because 思う is not an activity that leads to a result, in this case, your decision about what to order. However, 考える (or 考えます, since you want to be polite to that server) works here just fine, due to its goal-oriented nature.
You'll often see decision-making sentences with a question clause embedded within them. The question clause usually ends in 〜か, and is similar to how you can embed a clause in English with "whether." For example, in the sentence "I think about whether I should go to college," the "whether" part of the sentence is what you think about. Let's see how this works with 〜か in an example sentence.
- I think about whether I should go to college.
Whether I should go to college is a question that needs a decision or an answer, so it makes sense that 考える will be the choice here. To reach the decision, you would probably consider various factors, like your financial situation, career and life goals, and that's the kind of thinking that 考える is. The above example is a "yes or no" question, but any type of question can be used with か and 考える. For example:
- I think about where I should go for my next trip.
Do you see a question embedded in this sentence? It's "Where should I go for my next trip?" We use 考える to represent the active thinking required to reach some sort of answer or decision like this.
In this section, we'll change our focus from active thinking to how 思う and 考える can be used to present opinions to others. Sharing your opinion tends to be an interactional thing to do, so you'll see that many of the examples are in the polite ます form. Especially in the case of 考える, switching to 考えます helps come across as less stiff in many cases.
When sharing opinions, you'll often see the opinion part of the sentence followed by the quotative particle と, which is similar to "I think that 〜" in English. For example:
- I think that it's a fish.
As you can see, the English "think" fails to demonstrate the difference between 思う and 考える when they're used for sharing opinions too. Basically, 思う expresses spontaneous, "from your heart" inner thoughts, while 考える expresses a logical conclusion.
Let's dig a little deeper into this example to clarify the nuanced differences. Say someone sends you a picture of a strange-looking creature, which looks like a fugu (blowfish), but it somehow reminds you of tofu, the soy-based food.
The person asks you whether you know what this mysterious animal is. You may respond:
- I think it's a fish.
(I think it's a fish because that's what it looks like to me.)
- I think it's a fish.
(I think it's a fish because it has gills, fins, and tail, which are anatomic features of fish…)
So, when 考える is used, it implies that you have some logical reasoning to back up your opinion. On the other hand, 思う suggests that your thought process is more spontaneous, and your opinion is based on your gut instincts. Rather than "think," we could even use a translation like "I feel like it's fish" for 思う here. Because of these distinction, 思う is more common in casual conversations, whereas 考える tends to be used in formal writing, which requires logical arguments and evidence for credibility.
考える tends to be used in formal writing, which requires logical arguments and evidence for credibility.
Just like starting a sentence with "I think" in English, using 思う or 考える to express your opinion indicates that the thoughts come from your point of view. The motivation behind this choice can vary, but it could be a disclaimer saying "I may be wrong," or to be considerate for listeners who might have different opinions.
思う and 考える for Predictions
A prediction is a kind of like an opinion about the future, right? So, the differences we explained above apply to predictions, too. Let's start with a prediction about the results of a baseball game:
- I think the Crabigators are going to win today.
The first sentence using 思う sounds like the prediction comes from your intuition. Maybe it's based on your experience as a long-time baseball watcher or your pure hope for the win of your favorite team, the Crabigators. On the other hand, the sentence with 考える implies that there is logic to back up the assumption. Maybe according to your analysis of the records, the Crabigators are likely to win, statistically-speaking.
The sentence with 考える implies that there is logic to back up the assumption.
For this reason, 考える is more common in writing, and in speech it would sound like you're reading from a script. While it could be suitable for formal occasions, it is not natural to use it in most conversations. However, this doesn't mean that we can never use 考える to present our well-thought-out opinions in conversations. To do so, you just need to clarify that it's something "you have been thinking," and not just a random whim. Putting 考える into the ている form, 考えている, shows the continuity of this thought from the past up until now.
- I've been thinking the Crabigators are going to win today.
Here's another example of prediction:
- I think that it will rain next week.
Again, 思う implies the prediction is based on your instinct. Maybe you think it will rain next week because the air feels moist, or you've just experienced a spiritual sign of the rain that your great-grandma once taught you. 考える indicates the assumption is more logical and scientific, which may sound kind of professional, like what a weather reporter would say. However, keep in mind that weather reporters commonly use でしょう instead of using 考える to be more assertive and authoritative about their weather forecast.
思う and 考える for Judgments
思う and 考える can be used to present your judgments as well. The difference in nuance with this use is a little more subtle than others, but let's take a look at an example:
- I think Japan should reduce the use of plastic bags.
In this case, 思う gives the impression that your judgment is based on emotions, or simply your general belief that plastic is not good for the environment. 思う is thinking from the heart, after all! When you use 考える, it sounds more credible to your audience, but at the same time, they would anticipate that you follow up your statement with the logical reasoning that led to your conclusion. 思う sounds more suitable in casual conversational situations where the thought just comes to you, while 考える would be more appropriate in debates or writing where you have logic or evidence to support your opinion.
思う for Reactions
Next, let's take a look at a more emotional type of opinion — reactions. These are the impressions, feelings, or emotions you experience that occur naturally and uncontrollably. Since 思う is used for "thinking from the heart," it is a better fit for reactions. Unless you're a robot or sociopath, 考える doesn't quite work here.
- I think it's sad.
- On the day we met for the first time, I thought he was the one.
These expressions are similar to ones using the verb 感じる (to feel). However, note that 感じる emphasizes that it's a more intuitive, raw, immediate reaction.
- I feel sad.
The difference between 感じる and 思う is a little tricky. 感じる expresses emotions or feelings you experience through your senses. 思う is a little more removed, as if you've had time to process the feeling and observe it, rather than just report how you're currently feeling.
思う for Uncertainty
Expressing uncertainty is an important part of Japanese culture. In general, Japanese speakers avoid making assertive statements unless it is an absolute fact, and 思う is often used to express this kind of uncertainty. 考える is used to express credibility, so it contradicts the idea of uncertainty and is not suitable for this use.
For example, your friend asks you what time the Crabigators' baseball game starts. Since you're recalling the information from your memory, you use 思う to make it clear that you're not 100% sure:
- I think it's from two o'clock.
Here's another example:
- I think my dad is coming soon.
Whether your dad comes soon or not depends on him, so ultimately, you don't know for sure. Even if you were talking to him on the phone just a minute ago, he might have run into an old friend on his way and is taking a moment to catch up.
思う for Formal Announcements
This final use of 思う is kind of unique, and might feel a bit strange for English speakers. 思う (and usually in the polite 思います form) is often used to make an announcement about one's intentions at public events, speeches, or gatherings. For example:
- I think I want to start my presentation now.
(I'd like to start my presentation now.)
In this example, 思います adds a softness and sense of humility to the statement, because it suggests that your listeners have some choice in whether or not you actually begin your presentation. In a big conference hall, this is a totally empty gesture, but in a small gathering with a manageable number of people, this can actually be functional. If someone wants to go use the bathroom for example, they would feel more welcomed to ask that you wait a little longer. This use of 思います is common when addressing a mature audience, but the more direct 始めます "I'm starting" would be appropriate for situations like a gathering of small children at a nursery school.
So What Did You "Think?"
I hope this article helped you to "think" a little deeper about 思う and 考える, and you'll walk away with a more thorough understanding of these two words.
especially types of writing where you want to show more credibility, consider using 考える, or other expressions like だろう and でしょう. Of course, don't forget to present your logic and evidence in this case!
Since 思う is so casual and useful, there is a tendency amongst Japanese learners to overuse it in writing, such as in essays. However, especially types of writing where you want to show more credibility, consider using 考える, or other expressions like だろう and でしょう. Of course, don't forget to present your logic and evidence in this case! Also remember, if you're really sure of what you're saying, and your sources are so reliable that there's no room for argument, you could consider leaving out any kind of softening word, like 思う, 考える, だろう, or でしょう. You can be assertive, even if it doesn't feel like a very Japanese thing to do. It all depends on how you want to express yourself!
This has been a lot of thinking about "thinking!" Just keep in mind that you can think with your heart and your head. Hopefully, this distinction will help you to confidently choose between 思う and 考える in your own Japanese!