Another [thing / think] coming

Look, Hope, it’s the think with feathers!

Dear Word Detective:  When I first saw someone use the phrase “[he's/she's/they've] got another thing coming,” it was on the Internet, and as such I assumed it was a simple mistake on the part of the writer. But for some reason I became sensitized to the phrase, and started seeing it everywhere, even in print media. I have always known the phrase as “He’s got another think coming.” But when I polled my friends, they all seem much more familiar with the former (“thing”) than the latter (“think”). Which is it? — Michael Duggan.

Um, yes. Next question. Seriously, could you please pick a different question, perhaps something that won’t lead to inter-reader fisticuffs?  A few years ago I answered a question about the idiom “all told,” which some people evidently believe, quite fervently, to properly be “all tolled.” It’s not. It’s “all told,” employing an antiquated sense of “to tell” meaning “to count, keep track of, or add up” (the same “tell” as in “tell time”). And “toll” does not and never has meant “total up.” Anyway, when the column appeared on my web site (www.word-detective.com), folks started arguing in the comments and are still slugging it out three years later. I’ve actually had to delete more than a few ad hominem attacks. Good heavens, I wrote the thing, and even I don’t care that much.

The devilish thing about the “told/tolled” squabble is that “tolled” not only sounds just like “told,” it sounds like it might be right. The same “close but no cigar” situation applies to “another think/thing coming.” It’s almost always used in the form “If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think/thing coming,” meaning “you are greatly mistaken, and circumstances are about to prove you wrong” (“If you think I’m staying in a lead-lined nissan hut with you and Grandad and a chemical bloody khazi you’ve got another thing coming,” Only Fools and Horses, BBC, 1981). It’s become such a common saying that you can often get by with just the second half (“Well, Bob’s got another think coming”).

But now it’s time to don my catcher’s mask, pith helmet and oven gloves and open the envelope. And the winner is … “another think coming.” It first appeared in print in 1898, while “another thing coming” didn’t show up until 1906. True, that’s only eight years, but the Oxford English Dictionary declares quite definitively that “another thing coming” comes from “a misapprehension of ‘to have another think coming’.”

Then again, much as I love the gang at Oxford, arguments from authority haven’t really floated my boat since junior high. There is, fortunately, a simple explanation of the “misapprehension” which leads many people to gravitate to the “another thing coming” camp.

For “another think coming” version to conform to our basic sense of English grammar, “think” would have to be a noun, not a verb. But “thing” is already a noun, so “another thing” seems natural. “Another think”? Weird.

But guess what? “Think” is a noun as well as a verb. “Think” the noun first appeared around 1834 meaning “an act or period of thinking” (“Let’s have a cigar and a quiet think,” 1891), and, by 1886, “a thought” or “an idea” (“A thing must be a think before it be a thing,” 1887). We rarely see this noun form of “think” today (outside of this particular phrase), but in the late 19th century when the phrase became popular, “another think coming” would have been understood as equivalent to “another thought coming,” i.e., a change of mind.

So why not just say “thought” in the first place? Because it would have ruined the symmetry of the phrase, which depends on the first “think” (“If that’s what you think”), a verb, matching the second “think” (“… you’ve got another think coming”), a noun. That’s what gives the phrase its zing. Substituting “thing” for that second “think” ruins that balance and really doesn’t make any sense. You can’t say “another thing” if there wasn’t a first “thing.”

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