Tuesday, July 5, 2016

another think coming

As any casual reader of this blog will quickly deduce, there are a lot of things I don't know about. How disconcerting, then, to discover that something I felt quite certain about has shifted over to the "you know nothing about it" category. I am not young, people. You'd think that by this time, the things I feel confident in are a pretty stable, if small, collection. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case.

Yesterday I was reading Peter Rozovsky's blog post on Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings. Although in general enjoying the book, he did have a slight qualm when he saw James (or James' character) mistake the expression "another think coming"  as "another thing coming". My original assumption was that this was just a typo. Of course it's "you've got another thing coming". Everyone knows that. Right?

Wrong. The original expression was "you've got another think coming". A nice piece at Grammarist tells us that the original expression was "If that's what you think, you've got another think coming." Several examples are cited of early usage, all of which use "think", not "thing". But gradually the word shifted to "thing", so that in our day, it is the more common usage. the Grammarist  writer says that example of "thing" were a lot easier to find than "think" in current usage.

a play by Arthur Lewis Tubbs (1867-1946)

I have several very unscientific, unproven thoughts on all this. Although the contention is that "thing" made more sense to people than "think", my own belief is that people don't really think that much about phrases making sense when they repeat them, they just mimic what's been said to them because they think they already understand what is meant. I think in this situation, "think coming" and "thing coming" sound pretty much identical. So as I commented on Peter's blog, I have never heard anyone say "another think coming". But that doesn't mean they haven't said it. I may have just assumed " thing" because I "knew" that to be correct, while everyone else may have been saying "think" all along. I doubt it, but it's possible.

Secondly, as Peter pointed out, he has never actually heard anyone say "another think (or thing) coming", but has seen one or other of the versions in print occasionally. Now I have to admit that probably no has ever said that to me, because if they had, they would have had another thing coming--like my fist. But I do think I have heard it used, though probably more in drama than real life. Or maybe in the heightened speech of someone who was worked up, where I have noticed that people do tend to resort to clich├ęs.

An interesting thing, though, is that I don't think the two phrases mean exactly the same thing. Having another think coming really means you should think again, reconsider. Having another thing coming is more of a warning--if you persist on this path, you may be in for a surprise. Probably an unpleasant one, too.

Well,  we now  know  where  Judas Priest  weighs in on  the  issue. But I'm curious how familiar others are with either phrase. Did you already know all this, or did it come as a surprise?

Have a think on it and get back to me.


  1. Hi Seana, I have never heard either of these phrases which is not surprising as I am not a native speaker but I would feel the difference exactly as you described it.
    There was an interesting thought in your post: that one does not recognize whether it is think or thing because we assume we already know what is meant. This is exactly why we tend to overead typos - our eyes see them but our mind does not because our internal autocorrection immedeately starts working.
    There is a nice experiment: if you have a text where in all the words only the first and the last letter are in the proper place and all the other letters are mixed up, you can still read that perfectly.

  2. Thanks, Eva. Yes, I've seen examples othat first letter, last letter thing.

    I suppose there must be some evolutionary reason why we find it so hard to see outside our presumptions. Maybe we would just spend too long a time pondering everything...

  3. You are doubtless right that people don't think about these expressions when using them. The problem begins when people come up with reasonable explanations for expressions that have changed. No one (not me, not anyone) thinks that expressions he or she uses could be wrong, so we invent a past for the expression to suit its present (mis)use. The process is more analogous to myth than it is to history.

    The question gets interesting when people rationalize any mistake or sloppy usage with a bland declaration that "language changes." That sort of thinking confuses acceptance with surrender. In other words, I respect and even understand people who use they as a singular or "like" instead of "such as," but I'll be damned if I'm going to do it. And I am as much a bearer of the evolution of English as they are, so there.

  4. Well, I understand what you're saying, Peter. But I think it is all a bit more visceral than all that. I very much doubt that I am going to start saying "You've got another think coming" at this point, just as I am resistant to calling the Islamic State ISIL, no matter how much my otherwise esteemed President should say ISIL instead.

    It's interesting. I kind of support people using their own usage, like say ax instead of ask, because there is a whole decision around what sources you are going to be allegiant to. Your community vs. standard English in the latter case.

  5. Yeah, predjudices help to take quick decisions, that is probably their evolutionary value.
    In Germany, we usually just speak of IS. In the begining it was called ISIS, which I suppose corresponds to ISIL, but they stopped using that name in the news. I assumed at the time it sounded too nice, because its a female name and the name of an egyptian goddess.
    You have a good point there, Seana: language is always used to create group freeling and separate your group from others, especially in teenage-language or what the French call "argot".
    I see your point Peter, but usually I am also an advocate of letting language change. Attempts to keep language clean always seemed anachronistic to me because this fight cannot be won. But you are right, it is kind of surrender and it is important to see the origins of words and expressions because they are often still there on an unconscious level.

  6. I'm not sure I made myself clear. It's not a matter of letting language change; language changes whether we want it to or not.

    One problem is figuring out what constitutes change. Two people using a new usage? Two thousand? Two million? Just one authoritative source? And once a change has happened, what obliges me or anyone else to accept a new usage and abandon an old one?

    There is also something ironic about arguments in writing in favor of letting language evolve, abandoning so-called rules, and so on, because writing by its very nature is a system of standardization, of reducing the fluidity of speech to a standardized system of signs that enables communication between persons far apart in space and time.

  7. Hi Eva and Peter. Eva, I should mention that Peter is a copy editor, so his concerns with the rules of usage are more pertinent than say, mine.

    I personally am actually kind of resistant to language change, just temperamentally. I tend to be the last to use someone's new nickname, even when everyone else has adopted it, and refuse to say, "I referenced that" even when it has long become automatic among many of my friends.

    But there can be something comic about such holdouts too. It's true that we can say IS, ISIS or ISIL, all equally correct or inadequate depending on how you look at it. But at least it strikes me as stubborn in my president to refuse to use the term that the media has made pretty much standard. I have heard other people say "ISIS or ISIL" which is very diplomatic of them, but I can't think of anyone offhand who shows solidarity with Obama by just saying ISIL. Maybe Joe Biden.

    Peter, I'm not sure about the writing thing. It does seem that language has writing has tended toward standardization recently, but I'm not sure it was always so buttoned down. It seems that in Chaucer's time and Shakespeare's, it was all a bit more fluid. And, if you move into the world of Finnegans Wake it is definitely so. Although in that case it is playing off our conventional understanding.

  8. My thinking on these matters is especially pertinent only insofar as I see changes happening every day. I was the first person as far as I know to predict that the conditional will have vanished from English in fifty years.

    I said writing itself was a system of standardization, not spelling or language. English spelling began to be standardized in the eighteenth century, I think. Perhaps it is no coincidence that was also the first century in which learned men wrote for the general public: Hume, the French philosophes, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay in the Federalist Papers.

    No, I meant writing itself, as a system of reducing the infinite variety of sounds the human vocal apparatus can produce to a finite number of symbols capable of communicating those sounds.

  9. Fascinating post & discussion! I think I first heard the phrase from my mother, spoken aloud, and assumed the word was "thing" from hearing it, ascribing your meaning of something unexpected coming. Then I saw it in print somewhere as "think," which made perfect sense to me, in a new way (and, as you show us, old way!)

  10. I think it's because I have never to my knowledge seen it written "think" that I was so surprised that this was the original and still sometimes (often?) used version.