Another Thin’ Coming

Cassandra Nijon‘s second (well, really her first) blog post follows below.

Many so-called “old chestnuts” boast a long history of appearance in usage guides, but it seems the most prestigious source that managed to muster some attention for the contentious expression to have another thing/think coming is the Oxford English Dictionary. And here’s its verdict (in its entirety): “to have another think coming: to be greatly mistaken” and “to have another thing coming [arising from misapprehension of to have another think coming]” (see thing, subentry P15).

However, when members of Team Thing and of Team Think encounter each other in the wilds of the internet, the confrontation tends to look more like this:

[W]hen I see people write “another thing coming” I always assume they’re illiterate halfwits, or even that they know what the proper phrase is but are too arrogant to admit they used it wrongly before realising, and are now determined to carry on writing something nonsensical rather than ever admit they were an idiot in the first place. — Anonymous, Team Think

When I see “you’ve got another think coming,” I assume the person is a grammar presc[r]iptivist who freaks out at the notion language changes over time and still insists on the original meanings of words like “slut” and “idiot” despite their changed use in modern vernacular. It’s a sure sign that someone is a pretentious twit who incorrectly believes in their own mental superiority. — Anonymous, Team Thing in facetious reply to the previous one.

I chose these two quotes because they were entertaining, but really because they represent the levels of vitriol and condescension the argument can sink to whenever the two sides meet, usually either when enquiries are made into the ‘correct’ variant or when complaints are made about the use of the ‘wrong’ variant. So we have here a really interesting example of prescriptive trench warfare.

The greatest weapon in the arsenal of Team Think is that another think coming is the original expression, and another thing coming an innovative variant – i.e. a mistake, a corruption, a mangling of the English language and so on. For what it’s worth, the consensus is that think is indeed the original variant of the expression, but the (current) first citations of the original (1898) and the innovation (1906) are within only ten years of each other, so even though the think variant predates the one with thing, the two seem to have arisen nearly concurrently and have both been in use for over a century now. As Mark Libermann says, “it seems (…) the two versions of this expression have been more or less in sociological equilibrium since the beginning”.

It also seems to be agreed upon that the innovation arose out of a “misapprehension” of the original: due to the assimilation of the word-final /k/ of think to the word-initial /kh/ of coming, the two sound functionally identical – they can, on the whole, only be clearly disambiguated in writing – speakers produced the original think variant, but some listeners (perhaps aided by the fact that think was not a noun in their idiolects) heard and understood thing and consequently reproduced the innovative variant with thing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest weapon on Team Thing’s side is the supposed ungrammaticality of the think variant because (to them) think is not a noun – although I was quite surprised to see several people on Team Think calling their variant (deliberately) ungrammatical, so it seems that the status of nominal think is not a primary factor.

Interestingly, though, there appear to be few appeals to linguistic authorities or dictionaries (even the OED only pops up occasionally): this seems to be an issue of bottom-up prescriptivism, with both sides claiming the other variant makes no sense, is only used in mistaken ignorance, quite possibly is a blight on the English language, and only theirs is correct.

Although another think coming still seems to be more common in formal published writing, the more-commonly used variant in more informal discourse seems to be another thing coming: search engine results generally indicate a higher prevalence of think but are quite variable. In the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE, which contains 1.9 billion words taken from 20 international varieties of English) there are 33 instances of thing in US English versus 18 thinks, compared to 32 and 26 in British English; and 119-66 overall in favor of thing.

another thin GloWbE

Instances of another thing coming (green) and another think coming (blue) in the GloWbE corpus in six varieties of English where either variant occurred more than 5 times (the total is of all occurrences). Varieties included are: US English (US), GB English (GB), Irish English (IE), Australian English (AU) and Phillipine English (PH).

another thin Ngram

Instances of another thing coming (red) and another think coming (blue) in the Google NGrams, showing a majority of another think coming and a recent rise of another thing coming (source:  Throw Grammar from the Train).

At Language Log, Arnold Zwicky concludes: “[t]he fact seems to be that the line between mere variation and error is largely a matter of intellectual fashion – lord knows why [some] get picked on while other variants thrive without criticism – rather than a result of observation and reasoning.”

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