Laura DeMars and I maintain that qualifying your sentences with phrases like “I believe,” “I think,” “I feel,” and “In my opinion” can undermine your credibility by conveying uncertainty when you don’t want to sound uncertain. That’s not an absolute rule: there are plenty of times when you will be unsure, and you will want to convey that unsureness. There are also some situations where those phrases serve to distinguish or affirm your belief. But when misused or overused, those phrases can weaken your message… and you don’t want that!

First, some examples of when “I believe” et al. are perfectly fine:

Genuine uncertainty:I think our operating expenses will only be $250,000 next year, but with energy prices so volatile, I’m nervous about budgeting only that amount. What do the rest of you think?” (Note this usage includes the inherent invitation for others to provide information that can clarify your uncertainty and either support or refute your tentative position.)

Distinguishing your beliefs from specific opposing views: (Bryan’s example!) “The Senate Finance Committee thinks $400 million will fully fund the program, but I think anything less than a billion means the program tanks.”

Actively affirming a fundamental tenet or statement of faith: Robert points us toward the FFA Creed, in which every clause starts with “I believe….” But note that three of the five statements are “believe in” rather than “believe that.” The verb believe means something different in those two situations.

Another example of this usage is the Nicene and Apostles Creeds—the “Credo“—in the Catholic Mass (everything sounds more impressive in Latin!). Credo in Latin means “I believe.” Repeating that word—credo, credo, credo—is not a sign that the good Catholic is wavering and doubting God is in the house. It is an assurance, an affirmation, to fellow believers and the speakers themselves that their faith is alive and well.

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So no, I’m not going to drop in on the next FFA convention and razz the kids for not sounding confident in the future of American agriculture. However, I will criticize speakers for misusing and overusing belief phrases. Some examples of “I believe” phraseology that will detract from your speeches:

Stack ’em up:In my opinion, I think—”

Oh really? It’s just a matter of opinion that you are thinking? Well, I suppose one could contend that you are not currently engaged in cognitive activity and perhaps never have been, but never mind, please continue.

My point is not to be a jerk. My point is to emphasize the senselessness of putting certain words together. It is not your opinion that you think. You need only one phrase—”I think” or “In my opinion” or “I believe”—to establish that you are stating a matter of uncertain opinion. Strive to use just as many words as you need to convey your meaning and not one word more (unlike your instructor…).

Bonus phrase to avoid: “Personally, I think—” Stop. All thinking is personal. The phrase is redundant.

Repetition: I think that any phrase repeated too often loses its punch. I think it’s like starting sentences with “And” or “But”. I think you can use either of those words to start a sentence; I just don’t think you should use them to start every sentence. I think you can see what I mean.

Ego problems? This is more an issue in writing than speaking, but it’s worth considering. Academic writing tends to frown on using the first person. Many, perhaps most, of your professors will require that you remove references to yourself in your papers. The idea is to remove personal perspective and focus on objective analysis of the ideas.

If a prof says you can’t write I or my or me (“It seems to me that…”), all the phrases we’re talking about here go poof. You could try replacing “I believe” with something suitably third person, like “It is believed that…,” but such phrases only make your sentences even puffier. Just say what you’re thinking.

Now I actually don’t mind first-person references: I think there’s a very important place even in academic communication for personal context and perspective. But constantly prefacing statements with “I believe” tags may unnecessarily draw attention to ourselves and away, maybe just slightly, from the important ideas we’re discussing.

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As the Precise Edit language consultants say, “I believe” phrases usually convey uncertainty, delay your message, and add no value to what you are saying. There are exceptions, but more often than not, a sentence will convey just as much information, and do so more confidently, if you skip the opening clutter and just get to the point.

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