Q: Which is correct: “If you think that, you have another thing/think coming”? I see “thing” more often, but “think” makes more sense to me.
A: The two expressions, which are used to express disagreement, showed up in print within a couple of weeks of each other in the late 19th century.
The editors at the Oxford English Dictionary say that “to have another thing coming” resulted from a “misapprehension of to have another think coming.”
We tend to agree with that explanation, but word sleuths keep coming up with earlier examples for the expressions, and the question of which one inspired the other hasn’t been conclusively answered.
We agree with you that “think” makes more sense here than “thing.” Our guess is that whoever coined the expression was apparently using the noun “think” as a play on the verb “think.”
However, the noun “think” was relatively new at the time, and many people could have heard it as “thing,” a much more common noun that dates from early Anglo-Saxon days.
In fact, the phrases “think coming” and “thing coming” are often pronounced the same way, as the linguist Mark Liberman explains in a May 3, 2008, post on the Language Log.
More important, idiomatic expressions don’t have to make sense. The original expression may indeed have used “thing coming,” not “think coming.”
Both versions are common today, though “another thing coming” is more popular, especially in the US, according to our searches of contemporary English databases.
The News on the Web Corpus, for example, has more than twice as many examples for “another thing coming” as for “another think coming.”
(The NOW corpus contains 4.3 billion words from web-based newspapers and magazines published between 2010 and the present time.)
As for the etymology here, when the noun “think” showed up in the early 19th century, it meant an “act of (continued or concerted) thinking,” according to the OED.
The dictionary’s first citation is from an 1834 issue of Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine: “We lie lown yonder … and have time for our ain think.”
The expression “to have another think coming,” which Oxford defines as “to be greatly mistaken,” showed up six decades later.
The earliest OED example is from the May 21, 1898, issue of the Syracuse (NY) Standard: “Conroy lives in Troy and thinks he is a coming fighter. This gentleman has another think coming.”
However, a reader of the blog has found an earlier example from the Feb. 23, 1896, issue of the Sunday Journal (Indianapolis):
“ ‘Oh, you think you’ve seen me, do you?’ and once more that voice gurgled in his ear. ‘Well, you’ve got another think coming. See?’ ”
The earliest OED citation for “to have another thing coming” is from Wilshire Editorials, a 1906 collection of editorials in the various magazines published by Gaylord Wilshire:
“Now if we should try and think up some one person who is satisfied with the existing order of things … we would most likely have thought that we should find him in the editor of the Wall Street Journal. But if we did, then we have another thing coming.”
(The OED notes that the word “thing” here was “think” when the editorial originally appeared in 1904 in Wilshire’s Magazine.)
Interestingly, the reader we mentioned earlier has found both “think” and “thing” versions of an article about bicycle racing that appeared in two newspapers in 1897.
The “think coming” version appeared in the June 12, 1897, issue of the Buffalo (NY) Enquirer:
“In witnessing these things they imagine that these battles and quarrels of the track are carried on after the races are over. The people who think this ‘have another think coming,’ for the men travel in one of the most peaceful parties that follows any line of sport.”
The “thing coming” version appeared in an otherwise identical passage in the June 24, 1897, issue of the Elmira (NY) Daily Gazette & Free Press.
Additional examples may turn up as more written English is digitized. And preferences about “think coming” vs. “thing coming” may change.
From what we know now, the “another think” version was the first to show up, but English speakers today prefer “another thing.”
[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 24, 2017.]