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December 13th, 2006

Another think or another thing coming? / all aren't vs. not all are / addressing women plural

by Barbara Wallraff

Lynn and Joe Naoum, of Troy, Mich., and Tom Welsh, of Livonia, Mich., all wrote me separately about a dispute they’re having. They want to know whether the phrase is “you have another thing coming” or “you have another think coming.”

Dear Lynn, Joe and Tom: I’m with Lynn -- “another think” is right. Unfortunately, “another thing” is now more common. Here’s what seems to have happened: Early in the 20th century, people started saying, “If that’s what you think, you have another think coming.” They probably meant to be funny -- like people who say, “Who’d have thunk?” Others, who weren’t used to hearing “think” used as a noun (though the noun does appear in dictionaries), imagined they were hearing “another thing coming.” They must have assumed this was one of the many English expressions that don’t make literal sense, and they started saying “another thing.”

Among these folks, evidently, were the members of Judas Priest. This heavy-metal band might be to blame for the popularity of “another thing” -- its 1982 song “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” was a huge hit. But even though the “another thing” faction is in the majority by now, I’m sticking with “another think.” Not only is it the original phrase, but, unlike “another thing,” it makes sense.

Colin Smith, of Brookline, Mass., writes: “Let’s say you are looking at a bowl of marbles that contains 10 blue marbles and three red ones. Would you say, ‘All of the marbles aren’t blue’ or ‘Not all of the marbles are blue’? I often see the former sentence structure in print, but agree totally with the latter.”

Dear Colin: And I agree with you. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to point out that “all are not” is quite different from “not all are.” What messes people up, I suppose, is that the usual way to make a sentence negative is to drop a “not” into the middle of it: “This example sentence is not one of the two you wrote me about.” So when people who are wondering whether all the marbles are blue see ones that aren’t, they’re tempted to follow the usual pattern and say, “All of them are not ...” But since some of them are blue, they really ought to say, “Not all of them are.”

Mike Clow, of Colorado Springs, Colo., writes: “When I address a letter to men, I may use ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Sirs.’ But when addressing women, it feels odd to start with ‘Dear Ma’am,’ ‘Dear Madame’ or ‘Dear Ma’ams,’ so I often opt for just ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Ma’ams.’ What would be correct and acceptable?”

Dear Mike: “Ma’am” is a polite thing to say but an unusual one to write. The correct form when you’re writing to one woman (and don’t know her name) is “Dear Madam.” “Madame” is the French version. Whether the plural of “Madam” is “Madams” or “Mesdames” (pronounced “MAY-dum”) depends on whom you ask and what kind of “madam” you mean. To me, “Madams” looks tacky, and “Mesdames” looks pompous. But the abbreviation for “Mesdames,” “Mmes.,” isn’t so bad. When you’re writing to more than one anonymous woman, I’d suggest you write “Dear Mmes.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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