“Another Thing Coming” vs. “Another Think Coming”

My wife, Missy, and I are fond of arguing about language. She’s an English major, and I’m a linguistics major, and we sometimes have vastly different ways of thinking about language. It’s a lot of fun. Our latest discussion was whether it’s more correct to say “another thing coming” or “another think coming.” Missy saw an ad using “another thing coming” and scoffed, which surprised me since I have never heard it said nor seen it spelled any other way. I immediately thought of the famous Judas Priest song, “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” and had to shake myself out of a nostalgic rock-and-roll daze to finish being outraged that I could possibly be in the wrong.

Unfortunately, rock stars don’t make for convincing grammatical authorities, and Missy quickly convinced me that “another think coming” makes a lot more sense. “If you think I like you, you’ve got another thing coming” really doesn’t make much sense. What thing? How can there be another thing if there wasn’t a first thing to begin with? Exactly what thing is coming, and what is it going to do? On the other hand, “If you think I like you, you’ve got another think coming” makes much more sense. It’s a bit odd-sounding grammatically, but there’s nothing wrong with it, and it actually means something. You’re thinking one thing now, but you’re wrong and you’ll soon be thinking something else.

Still, I wanted to find something authoritative, if possible. A quick internet search turned up a lot of pointless arguments from people who apparently don’t know what a dialect is, or if they do, they fail to realize that they speak one, too. Just because you and all your friends say it one way doesn’t make it universally accepted. (For my first piece of evidence I submit the word “irregardless.”) But I did find a few chunks of real information.

Prior Use in Literature

One of the best pieces of evidence we have is prior use in literature. I didn’t find anything crushingly authoritative, but there was a handy post on the English Stackexchange site that provided a search of Google’s NGrams database (which, if you aren’t aware, is a massive index of every word and phrase used in over 5 million books that Google has scanned). The results reveal the earliest usage of “another thing coming” to be from 16 December 1906:

“But if we did, then we have another thing coming, for this is the cry-baby talk I find in this morning’s (Dec. 16) editorial…”

I had to do a bit of my own searching to find the earliest usage of “another think coming,” but I found one from 1903:

“…and say, Mr. Editor, think we did not do justice to the occasion, and you got another think coming.”

It’s not very a well formed sentence, but the intent is pretty clear anyway. And here’s another example, from March 1906:

“May be you think your factory is not a school. If you do, you’ve got another think coming.”

Of course, just because these are the earliest examples I could find on Google NGrams doesn’t mean they’re actually the earliest examples of these phrases. There could easily be some publication that Google hasn’t indexed. There are two commonly cited newspapers used as evidence online (such as by Gary Martin of The Phrase Finder), but none of the citations I saw provided links to the originals. Apparently these two newspapers haven’t been scanned and indexed by Google yet. But I’ll thrown them in for the sake of completeness, since one of them dates from 1898.

“Another thing coming” was used in the New York newspaper The Syracuse Herald in August 1919:

“If you think the life of a movie star is all sunshine and flowers you’ve got another thing coming.”

“Another think coming” was apparently used in the local rival paper The Syracuse Standard years earlier in May 1898:

“Conroy lives in Troy and thinks he is a coming fighter. This gentleman has another think coming.”

Phonetic Likelihood

Another argument that makes “another think coming” seem even more plausible is the likelihood of misunderstanding it when spoken. When vocalizing “another think coming,” the two k sounds become merged, so it sounds more like “thingkumming.” Someone listening might easily think you’re saying “another thing coming” instead. It’s plausible that people hearing the original phrase misunderstood and then perpetuated their misunderstanding both vocally and in print.

It’s like the person I know who innocently used the phrase “6 months encounting” instead of “6 months and counting.” That person had obviously never seen the actual phrase in print and was simply attempting to type out phonetically what she’d heard her whole life. It also highlights the fact that idioms don’t have to be inherently meaningful. To this person, it didn’t matter that “encounting” isn’t a real word. It was just part of a phrase she knew. The phrase as a whole had meaning despite her lack of understanding about the individual words in it. This is actually a decent defense against the argument that “another think coming” must be correct because it makes more sense than “another thing coming.” Idioms don’t have to make inherent sense; they can still be meaningful when used as a whole unit. History and tradition make them meaningful.

But when you have a phrase that really does make sense pitted against one that doesn’t, I’ll vote for the one that does. Especially when…

The Dictionary Says So

Finally, it appears that both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam Webster believe the correct usage is “another think coming.” Although I don’t have an OED of my own, a poster on Wordreference.com offered this quote from the dictionary:

think, n. 2b to have another think coming: to be greatly mistaken.
1937Amer. Speech XII. 317/1 Several different statements used for the same idea – that of some one’s making a mistake…[e.g.] you have another think coming.

Considering the OED’s reputation, I find it odd that their earliest example seems to come from 1937. It could be that the 1937 example is simply the clearest and most prominent one, not the earliest. I don’t know what criteria the OED uses in choosing examples. In any case, we also have “another think coming” used by Merriam Webster as an example of “think” used as a noun, which validates it in my mind.

think, noun
an act of thinking <has another think coming>

So there you have it. I don’t have anything bulletproof, but it appears that “another think coming” is the best bet. I shouldn’t have been surprised. My wife is almost always right about matters of usage and pronunciation. Apparently, I had another think coming.

13 comments so far

  1. Missy | Sunday, 6 May 2012, 9:11 pm |

    This was so well-written someone ought to publish it!

  2. Jeff | Monday, 7 May 2012, 7:53 am |

    I agree with Missy, this should be published. I’ll change the way I say that phrase from now on. :)

  3. Joe | Monday, 7 May 2012, 9:18 am |

    Missy may have just stumbled upon being “right” because she pronounces words that end in “ing” with a subtle k sound. :)

  4. Ing | Tuesday, 8 May 2012, 10:27 am |

    Interesting. I like to think I know the “true” version of any idiom you could name, but I would’ve been on the wrong side of this one.

    I went to the Common Errors in English Usage website (http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/thing.html), and it had this to say:

    “Here’s a case in which eagerness to avoid error leads to error. The original expression is the last part of a deliberately ungrammatical joke: “If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming.””

    I wouldn’t say it’s eagerness to avoid error that causes the confusion — I think your explanation is better — but this site is almost never wrong when it comes to what’s correct vs. incorrect.

    One more point of support for Missy.

    By the way, I think it’s awesome that the two of you actually argue over things like this…and have the brains and gumption to settle it by such superbly nerdy means as the Google Ngrams database and the OED.

  5. Ben | Tuesday, 8 May 2012, 10:37 am |

    Joe—You’re right, Missy totally does that!

    Ing—I’m pretty sure I saw a link to that website in my researching. If I’m not mistaken, it looks like they take their info from that book Common Errors in English Usage. I think I even have a copy of that book in my house, but I didn’t check it. Haha. The problem is, I wanted to know WHY, hence all the nerdy researching. :)

  6. Jeff | Wednesday, 9 May 2012, 5:33 am |

    An expression that Becca and I have argued about in the past was “Nip it in the butt.” Needless to say, I changed how I say that one too, (unless I’m trying to get her goat).

  7. Ben | Wednesday, 9 May 2012, 7:42 am |

    “Nip it in the butt” certainly conjures a strong mental image. I can just picture someone preparing to daintily nibble on someone else’s rear end!

  8. Ing | Wednesday, 9 May 2012, 9:14 am |

    My favorite Monty Python quote! “What’s ‘e gonna do, nibble me bum?”

    As it turns out, the Common Errors website came first, and they’re done by the same guy. After his site got popular he decided there ought to be a book, too. The only reason I know anything about it is that the guy who created the website was a professor at Washington State when I was in the English MA program. He started it back in the internet’s stone age on his university-provided personal faculty page. He retired a couple years ago, and since the site was so popular, the university decided to permanently host it as a public service (whether he still updates it or anyone else does, I don’t know).

  9. Liz | Tuesday, 15 May 2012, 7:43 pm |

    Well written and fun to read.

  10. Ben | Friday, 18 October 2013, 8:49 am |

    I recently received a comment from one Robert Daland on this post, but he accidentally submitted the comment on the wrong post. Here it is:

    Like the author, I have never heard or read it as anything but “Another thing coming.”

    With that said, I have to disagree with the phonetic point. “Think” ends in a voiceless /k/, while “thing” ends in a voiced /g/. (Actually many Americans do not pronounce a [g] at all, and only pronounce the preceding /n/ sound in the back of their mouth.) And it is indisputable that “coming” begins with a voiceless /k/. So the question is, were the original speakers intending to produce a /g#k/ sequence or a /k#k/ sequence (where # is the word boundary symbol)?

    Crosslinguistically, and in modern English, devoicing (/g/ –> [k]) is far more common than voicing (/k/ –> [g]). This is true both at the end of words, and also across syllable/compound boundaries. Thus, it is more likely to produce “another thin[k#k]oming” (when you meant thin/g/) than it is to produce “another thin[g#k]oming” when you meant thin/k/). In fact, it would be bizarre to mistakenly voice a word-final stop that occurs before a truly voiceless stop.

    In short, if one truly came before the other, I think it is much more likely that “another thing coming” was misproduced as “another think coming”, rather than the other way around. To go the other way, you would have to argue that listeners perceptually overcompensated for the devoicing process.

  11. Ben | Friday, 18 October 2013, 9:02 am |

    And here’s my reply to Robert.

    While your analysis sounds good, I think you’re approaching it wrong. It doesn’t really have much to do with the intent of the speaker. It has to do with the perceptions of the listener. To the listener, it doesn’t matter if the speaker was devoicing a /g/ or voicing a /k/. They sound the same in the end when placed next to the word initial /k/ of “coming.” So the argument is that the phrase was originally intended to be “think coming” but was misperceived as “thing coming” and was subsequently spelled that way, leading to a widespread misunderstanding of what the phrase was really supposed to be.

  12. mike | Tuesday, 19 November 2013, 8:37 pm |

    You can think a thought, however you cannot think a think. Why would it not be ‘you’ve got another thought’ coming? It feels like a grammatically oblivious statement.

  13. Ben | Tuesday, 19 November 2013, 8:55 pm |

    Mike, thanks for taking the time to comment. I understand where you’re coming from, because the phrase does sound odd grammatically. But “you’ve got another think coming” is perfectly grammatical. “Think” can be both a verb and a noun. If you don’t believe me, look it up in the dictionary and then sit down and have a nice long think about it (see what I did there?).

    Besides, “you’ve got another thought coming” isn’t the least bit interesting or memorable. Nobody would repeat that or write a rousing rock anthem about it. Even if the phrase wasn’t grammatical, poetic license and the freedom of English speakers to invent new meanings through use would rule the day.

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