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shameless pleading

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.”

Of course, if the noun form of “think” had been more popular back in the 1890s, the “thing” version wouldn’t have popped up almost immediately and be, judging by Google, far more popular today. So it’s probably too late to start a campaign to restore “another think coming” to its rightful place, but the whole story might win you a few bar bets.

10 comments to Another [thing / think] coming

  • Robert

    “Another think coming” might have been the original idiom, but that doesn’t mean that “another thing coming” is wrong. Both make perfect sense. If I say “If you think you’re going to steal my car, you’ve got another thing coming,” the first thing is you taking my car. The other thing is what will result if you attempt to steal my car. I don’t make it explicit, but you might not like that second thing.

    There was once one idiom, now there are two, and they are both perfectly logical. There is simply no logical basis for saying “another thing coming” is wrong. It’s like “card sharp” vs. “card shark”. There is nothing wrong with either. Sharp may have been original, but card shark has connotations of someone who is not just skilled with cards, but someone who will take advantage of you, like a pool shark.

  • Dave Khan

    Robert wins the prize for being the first to play the “specious logic” card. Every crusader for every malapropism must always be willing to insist that it is right, just and “logical” to use the wrong word or phrase. Thus the crusaders for “I could care less” twist and squirm and bludgeon semantics and insist “I couldn’t care less” is less logical; the believers in “for all intensive purposes” will fight to the rhetorical death anyone who denies that their usage walks the true path of logic; loyal adherents of “falling between the cracks” will tie themselves in knots explaining how much more logical their phrase is than “falling through the cracks”.

    But oddly enough, despite all the logic-twisting some folks go through to justify their usage, logic is not even a requirement for idioms. An idiom is what it is. Using it requires no logical justification. Those who are familiar with the idiomatic usage of a word or phrase understand it; those who are ignorant of it often simply mis-hear it, and subsequently butcher and mis-use it. Say “pipe them gams!” to a youngster who hasn’t heard it, and it might be picked up in transmogrified form as “like them hams!”, and the wide-eyed, unaware youth will, in due time (or “in do time” as he might say), after repetition of his own butchered usage while remaining unaware of the original phrase, be able to explain the “logic” behind the expression, totally unaware of his error.

    So yes, Robert, there are indeed now two idioms: the original clever turn of phrase, and the mistake borne upon the wings of ignorance. Some people might think there’s no difference between a clever turn of phrase and an ignorant mistake, but they have another think coming. Those mistakes are telling, and elicit smiles.

  • KT McCann

    Ooh la la! Robert. Well said!

  • KT McCann

    I meant David.

  • Chaz

    *Addendum: further research has uncovered that a similar idiom preceded the “think” version and can be found in Coleridge’s Olde Engish Dictionary, circa 1860; “If he/she/they believe (thusly), you have another believe coming.”
    Believe was commonly used as a noun during the mid 19th century, though fallen out of practice now. Believe it or it’s not a believe.

  • BlackHeat1974

    David, Well said.

  • SB

    At 30 years old, I am just now coming across this debate on the internet. I have never in my entire life heard anyone say “another think coming”, so I would never even have know this was a debate. It has been and is always “another thing coming” where I’m from (northeast US). Maybe Judas Priest is to blame? I understand the explanation of “think”, but honestly using “think” as a noun sounds like you’re reading a Dr. Seuss book. Also it implies this other “think” is just going to dawn on the person, whereas the useage of “thing” I’m used to is much more threatening, with the “thing” implied to be an unpleasant repercussion that awaits the person as a result of their stance on whatever it is that’s in dispute. I can’t argue with the historical facts, but I do think that an idiom that’s been in use for over 100 years is perfectly legitimate, and this shouldn’t even be discussed in the same breath as “all intensive purposes”, which is an abomination.

  • Norman

    It’s definitely “another think” to me, and always will be. If you think x, then think again…you have another think coming. It’s the only thing that makes any sense to me, and I definitely consider it an error when I see “another thing coming.” I’m 48 by the way, from Saskatchewan. There’s nothing remotely “Dr. Seuss” about “another think” to me. Robert’s comment makes no sense at all to me. “Another thing coming” would work only in a very limited context, whereas “another think” can be used in any circumstances…for thoughts and comments as well as actions. It doesn’t have to apply only to an action that brings direct consequences or retaliation.

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