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What is the difference in meaning and usage between「と思います」and「かと思います」at the end of a sentence?

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There's a difference in meaning between 〜かと思う and 〜と思う.

Rhetorical usage:

心臓が止まるかと思った
"I thought my heart was going to stop!"

心臓が止まると思った
"I thought my heart would stop."

(I changed the tense in the English, but ignore that. The difference is in tone.)

心臓が止まると思った just means that you had the thought that your heart was going to stop. 心臓が止まるかと思った on the other hand is rhetorical. 死ぬかと思った is another example of this usage.

Softening usage:

そうする意味はないかと思います。
"I think there's probably no significance in doing that."

そうする意味はないと思います。
"I think there's no significance in doing that."

The bottom one here is making a strong statement (despite the 〜と思います, it's basically just declaring what you think). The top makes more sense if you're talking in a context where it is better to admit that your opinion isn't the deciding factor in a situation.

The semantics of か, in both of these uses, is very much like the (literal) meaning of "probably" in English. You raise the thing as a possibility that you think is likely. This か probably historically derives from the usual question 〜か (or maybe 〜ではないか), but it feels pretty diverged at this point (i.e., そうする意味はないかと思います isn't equivalent to 「そうする意味はないか」と思います).

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  • Thank you for the detailed answer. I think this is a bit more in the line of what I expected. – ddiez Dec 18 '15 at 8:06
  • +1, but maybe better to say that か in the rhetorical usage section is "as if". Without か your heart would literally stop: このまま体温が低下すれば……心臓が止まると思った。 – broccoli facemask - cloth Dec 19 '15 at 7:39
  • @broccoliforest Hmm. I think かのように maps to "as if" in English pretty directly, but not just か. "I thought as if my heart would stop" sounds broken like 心臓が止まるかのように思った does. "As if" definitely seems extremely relevant, but I'm not sure how to work it in. – Darius Jahandarie Dec 19 '15 at 18:43
  • Thanks. Apparently my grip of English nuances is less than useful, but I'm very sure that it carries "almost" or "practically" but doesn't really mean it. Another thing I should have noticed earlier is: this kind of かと is only followed by 思う, and omitting the verb doesn't change anything. It could be an idiom. I searched over BCCWJ and only saw examples with 思う, 存じる or independent so far. – broccoli facemask - cloth Dec 19 '15 at 19:54
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"と思います" and "かと思います" are very similar. The difference, literally, is the "か". Adding the "か", essentially being a question-mark, makes it less definitive.

You can make it even less definitive, and add a "な" after "か", making it "かなと思います".

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  • Thanks (+1). I generally agree with what you say but I am not convinced it is just only a matter of making it less definitive. For example, I always hear the 「かと思います」version in formal environment. I have the feeling that there is something more in there. Also, personally I have never heard 「かなと思います」(of course, I'd heard ending the sentence in かな〜). – ddiez Dec 15 '15 at 3:33
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    @ddiez You can use かと思います in a formal setting. It's perhaps more common there. Being less definitive (less straightforward) is a way of being humble. – Amani Kilumanga Dec 15 '15 at 3:50

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