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The verbs pensare, credere, and ritenere have similar meanings. However, are they always interchangeable?

Pensare is "to think" and credere is "to believe", but ritenere seems like 1. it is a word for a higher register, perhaps more formal and literary, and 2. is used for when you are referring to belief in principles rather than just plain thought.

Take for instance the sentence: "penso di usare la rete ogni giorno". This isn't a problematic sentence. But the sentence, "ritengo che lui usi il telefonino ogni cinque minuti" sounds pretentious. The expressed thought is also not a deep conviction, it is a simple thought, so the use of ritenere here doesn't seem correct.

  • If by “pretentious” you mean, as the vocabulary says, «attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed», then no, using ritenere is not pretentious by itself. It is perhaps more usual, as you say, in a higher register (say, a speech or an essay), but it is not unheard even in everyday conversation. – DaG Jan 26 '16 at 8:38
  • Well, the sentence ritengo che lui usi il telefonino ogni cinque minuti is appropriate for a teacher sending a student to the director. – N74 Jan 26 '16 at 10:31
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Ritenere is generally used in a higher register, as DaG says, but I may say "ritengo di non farcela" if I want to convey the fact that I thought about it and I eventually decided that I cannot possibly do it. This is different from "penso/credo di non farcela", where I have a hunch that I won't be able to do it.

As for penso/credo, besides the liturgic Creed :-) the latter should reflect a bit more confidence, but in practice they are interchangeable.

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