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The Difference Between Luulla, Ajatella and Miettiä

This article deals with the verbs luulla, ajatella and miettiä. All three are verbs that can be used to express “to think”. In addition, there are other verbs such as pohtia, mietiskellä, pohdiskella and harkita. These will be the topic of another article.

Table of Contents
  1. Minä luulen vs. minä ajattelen
  2. Luulla – To think, to assume
  3. Ajatella – To think, to have thoughts
    1. I’m thinking of you – Ajattelen sinua
    2. What do you think of this? – Mitä ajattelet tästä?
    3. I was thinking of selling my house – Ajattelin myydä taloni
    4. I think that – Ajattelen, että
  4. Miettiä – To think, to wonder
    1. I’ll think about it – Mietin asiaa
    2. I wonder who would understand – Mietin, kuka ymmärtäisi
    3. I think that – Mietin, että
  5. “I think that climate change…”

1. Minä luulen vs. minä ajattelen – “I think that”

One problem that beginner and intermediate students run in fairly often is how to translate “I think” to Finnish. The two most common verbs for this are luulla and ajatella. In addition, it’s also a good idea to get acquainted with the verb miettiä.

The following small list should help you grasp the difference between luulla, ajatella and miettiä.

  • Ajatella refers to what’s happening in your brain: you’re producing thoughts.
    Example: Ajattelin äitiäni. “I thought about my mother.”
    Example: Hän ajattelee sinua. “He’s thinking about you.”
    Example: Ajattelen, siis olen. “I think therefore I am.”
  • Luulla refers to opinions and ideas which could be, but might not be true.
    Example: Luulin, että tänään on maanantai. “Thought today was Monday.”
    Example: Hän luulee, että vihaan häntä. “He thinks I hate him.”
    Example: Luuletko, että hän tulee vielä? “Do you think she’s still coming?”
  • Miettiä refers to thinking something over, often before making a decision.
    Example: Mietin vaihtoehtojani. “I think/thought about my options.”
    Example: Hän mietti pitkään ennen kuin vastasi. “He thought for a long time before he answered.”
    Example: Hän lupasi miettiä asiaa. “He promised to think about it.”

Next, I want to go into more detail for each of these verbs.

2. Luulla – To think, to assume

The verb luulla expresses that whatever you’re thinking is uncertain. You’re under the impression that something might be a certain way. It expresses that the thought might turn out not to be true. This verb does not inherently mean that what you’re thinking isn’t true, but it leaves the option open.

This verb will be followed by the conjunction että and a full sentence.

Finnish English
Luulen, että tulen myöhässä. I think I will be late.
Luulin, että se ei tapahtuisi minulle. I thought it wouldn’t happen to me.
Luulen, että kuulin jotain. I think I heard something.
Luuletko, että olen tyhmä? Do you think I’m stupid?
Luulitko, että en saisi asiaa selville? Did you think I wouldn’t find out?

3. Ajatella – To think, to have thoughts

Ajatella refers to what’s happening in your brain: you’re producing thoughts. It’s used in several different sentences constructions.

3.1. Ajatella – I’m thinking of you – Ajattelen sinua

The verb ajatella is used to express that your thoughts are with a person, or that you’re thinking about/of something. Ajatella is followed by the partitive case when you express what you’re thinking about.

Finnish English
Ajattelen kotimaatani. I’m thinking of my home country.
Ajattelin sinua koko ajan. I thought about you all the time.
Ajattelen asiaa. I will think about it.
Mi sinä ajattelet? What are you thinking of?
Arvaa, mi ajattelen! Guess what I’m thinking!
Meidän täytyy ajatella lapsiamme. We have to think of the children.
Älä ajattele si! Don’t think about it!

3.2. Ajatella – What do you think of this? – Mitä ajattelet tästä?

In questions, you can use the verb ajatella to ask what someone’s thoughts are on a topic. The topic will be inflected in the mistä-form (elative case) in these questions. In statements, the verb ajatella will not be used with the mistä-form! See section 3.4 for information about statements.

Finnish English
Mitä ajattelet ilmastonmuutoksesta? What do you think of global warming?
Mitä ajattelet tupakoinnista? What do you think about smoking?
Mitä hän ajattelee minusta? What does he think of me?

3.3. Ajatella – I was thinking of selling my house – Ajattelin myydä taloni

The verb ajatella can also be used in combination with a verb in its basic form. In these types of sentences, the verb ajatella focuses on what you’re considering, planning or aiming to do.

The verb ajatella will usually be inflected in the past tense, while the second verb will appear in its basic form (infinitive). We use the past tense even when the intended action takes place in the future. This is kind of logical, because you’re expressing a thought you just had out loud.

Finnish English
Ajattelin käydä kahvilla. I was thinking of going for a coffee.
Ajattelitko osallistua kisaan? Were you thinking of participating in the race?
Ajattelin yllättää sinut. I thought I’d surprise you.
En ajatellut tulla enää koskaan. I didn’t think I’d ever come again.

3.4. Ajatella I think that – Ajattelen, että

When ajatella is followed by että and a full sentence, it expresses a thought you had in a situation. You will only use the verb ajatella for this when you’re referring to a static thought you have. Longer thought processes require the verb miettiä.

Finnish English
Ajattelin, että kaikki oli mahdollista. I thought everything was possible.
Ajattelin, että sinä tykkäisit tästä. I thought you would like this.
En ajatellut, että se onnistuisi. I didn’t think it would work out.
Ajattelen usein, että jotain pahaa voi tapahtua. I often think that something bad can happen.

In order to understand the difference with luulla, it’s a good idea to compare sentences which can have both verbs. In some cases, you can use both verbs with only a slight difference. This is especially useful for when the sentences tell about a thought you previously had, because in these cases we know the outcome.

Compare for example:

  • I thought everything was possible.
    Ajattelin
    , että kaikki oli mahdollista. “I had the thought that” (I held this as true)
    Luulin, että kaikki oli mahdollista. “I was under the impression that” (but it wasn’t)
  • I thought you would like this.
    Ajattelin, että tykkäisit tästä. “I had the idea that” (I held this as true)
    Luulin, että tykkäisit tästä. “I was under the impression that” (but you didn’t)
  • I didn’t think it would work.
    En ajatellut, että se onnistuisi. “I didn’t think that” (but maybe it did)
    En luullut, että se onnistuisi. “I didn’t assume that” (and it didn’t)

4. Miettiä – To think, to wonder

The verb miettiä is used when you think something over. Often it’s related to making decisions, but it can be any thinking process which takes more time.

It’s common to use the verb miettiä in combination with an element that expresses how long or how often you think about something. This can be done in several ways:

  • We can use the perfect tense, which in itself means that something has had a longer time span.
    Example: Olen miettinyt tätä. “I’ve thought about this.” or “I’ve been thinking about this.”
    Example: Oletko miettinyt tulevaisuuttasi?” “Have you thought about your future?
  • We can use an expression of time that expresses how long or how often you’ve been thinking about something.
    Example: Mietin tätä usein. “I often think about this.”
    Example: Mietin tätä jatkuvasti. “I think about this constantly.”
    Example: Mietin tätä joka päivä. “I thought about this every day.”
    Example: Mietin tätä pitkään. “I thought about this for a long time.”

The form “minä mietin” could be both the present and the past tense: “I think” and “I thought”. Keep that in mind while reading through the next sections.

4.1. Miettiä – I’ll think about it – Mietin asiaa

The verb miettiä can get an object, which will always be inflected in the partitive case.

Finnish English
Olen miettinyt tä pitkään. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.
Mietin asiaa. I will think about it. / I thought about it.
Voinko miettiä asiaa pari päivää? Can I think about it for a couple of days?
Olen miettinyt sinua paljon. I’ve been thinking about you a lot.
Mietin työasioita. I am (I was) thinking about work related things.

4.2. Miettiä – I wonder who would understand – Mietin, kuka ymmärtäisi

The verb miettiä can also be used in combination with a question. In these cases, miettiä will be followed by a comma and then:

  1. a question word (eg. missä, milloin, mihin)
  2. a -ko/-kö question (eg. tuleeko, olenko, haluatko)

Especially in spoken language, it’s very common to still add the conjunction että between the verb and the question word. The first example in this table could also be, for example, “Mietin, että näinkö maailma loppuu”.

For these types of sentences, the English translation for miettiä is often “to wonder” rather than “to think”, as you can see in the examples below.

Finnish English
Mietin, näin maailma loppuu. I wondered, is this how the world ends.
Mietin, milloin huomattaisiin poissaoloni. I wondered when my absence would be noticed.
Silloin mietin, missä menin vikaan. Then, I wondered where I went wrong.
Mieti, mitä olisit voinut tehdä toisin. Think what you could have done differently.
Mieti, oletko tehnyt jonkin virheen. Consider if you’ve made a mistake.
Hän miettii, olisiko isä ylpeä hänestä. He wonders if dad would be proud of him.
Hän mietti, voiko tämä olla totta. He wondered if this could be true.
Mietin, että voisin olla yhtä hyvin yksinkin. I thought that I could just as well be alone.
Usein mietin, että miksi minä. I often think “why me?”
Mietin, että milloin olisi sopiva hetki lopettaa. I wondered when would be the right time to quit.
Mietin, että pitäisikö kokeilla jotain uutta. I wonder if I should try something new.

4.3 Miettiä – I thought that – Mietin, että

The verb miettiä can also be used with an että-sentence or the että-construction.

Finnish English
Mietin, että tästä ei tulisi mitään. I thought that nothing would come of this.
Mietin, että lapseni ei koskaan rakastaisi minua. I thought about how my child would never love me.
Välillä mietin, että toivoa ei ole. Sometimes I think that there’s no hope.
Mietin usein, että työni on liian hektistä. I often think that my work is too hectic.

While my example sentences in the table above are short and to the point, it’s important to realize that the verb miettiä inherently contains the idea that the thought process takes longer. This is in contrast with the verb ajatella which is used when you have a singular thought. Compare for example:

  • Ajattelin, että kukaan ei huomaisi. “I (had the) thought that nobody would notice.”
  • Mietin, että kukaan ei huomaisi ja että kuollut ruumiini löydettäisiin vasta silloin, kun se alkaisi haista ja naapurit valittaisivat vuokranantajalle hajusta. “I thought that nobody would notice and that my dead body would be found only when it would start to smell and my neighbors would complain about the smell to the landlord.”

As seen in the table, while my example for miettiä has a long explanation, this isn’t always necessary when using this verb. The idea that miettiä contains more than one thought is built into the verb itself. This is in contrast with the verb ajatella, which generally refers to having a single thought.

5. “I think that climate change…”

In English, expressing your opinion often happens with the help of the phrase “I think”.This is generally the topic which sparks the question “What’s the difference between ajatella and luulla“. It’s a good idea to refrain from using the verb ajatella in texts where you explain your opinion on a topic.

In Finnish, you can use the verb luulla to express your opinion, but there are other – more Finnish-sounding – ways to achieve the same result. Below, I’m giving both the typical “minä luulen” sentence which Finnish learners favor and some better translations.

  • “I think climate change is a hoax.”
    Typical: Luulen, että ilmastonmuutos on huijausta.
    Alternative: Olen sitä mieltä, että ilmastonmuutos on huijausta.
    Alternative: Mielestäni ilmastonmuutos on huijausta.
  • “I think smoking should be banned altogether.”
    Typical: Luulen, että tupakointi pitäisi kieltää kokonaan.
    Alternative: Olen sitä mieltä, että tupakointi pitäisi kieltää kokonaan.
    Alternative: Mielestäni tupakointi pitäisi kieltää kokonaan.
  • “I think I’m a good cook.”
    Typical: Luulen, että olen hyvä kokki.
    Alternative: Pidän itseäni hyvänä kokkina.
    Alternative: Olen omasta mielestäni hyvä kokki
  • “I think we can’t carry on like this.”
    Typical: Luulen, että näin ei voida jatkaa.
    Alternative: Mielestäni näin ei voida jatkaa.
    Alternative: Minusta tuntuu, että näin ei voida jatkaa.

That’s all for this article about luulla, ajatella and miettiä! I plan on writing an article about mental verbs in general in the near future. That article will contain other verbs that can be used to think about things, such as harkita, pohtia and mietiskellä.

PS: The dictionary glosbe.com is often very useful when you’re dealing with a verb with many meanings. It’s not 100% reliable but it certainly gives you an idea of the many options there are.

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Antonio Rubio

Hi, just to mention that the order of the “chapters” are slightly shifted accordingly to the Table of Contents. Luulla should be 2, ajatella 3 and so on …

Inge (admin)

Kiitos! I added another point for you 🙂

Carrie

In 3.2 on Ajatella, you say “You won’t use statements with the verb ajatella in this way! (see section 4)” Do you mean you won’t use miettiä in the way that ajatella was used in the example (to ask what you think of a topic)? Or that you won’t use ajatella in the answer? It is a bit confusing. (I had to really think about it to come to option #2)

Also, as a picky note, in English “Ajattelin, että tykkäisit tästä. “I has the idea that” (I held this as true)” would be “I had the idea that,” since Ajattelin is in past tense.

Inge (admin)

Hei Carrie! You’re not being picky by pointing this type of things out! That “has” was a typo, I did intend to write “had”. Thank you!

The issue in 3.2 was indeed confusing. What I meant was that – in questions – you can use the mistä-form (Mitä ajattelet ilmastonmuutoksesta?), but in statements you won’t use the mistä-form. With the verb ajatella, you will use an että-sentence for statements (Ajattelen, että ilmastonmuutos on vakava ongelma).

I’m giving you two points for these issues! Kiitos 🙂