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If I can get them to thinking about anything else but letters home and if I can get them to forget their bellies, I guess they'll be all right. (source)

I just came across the phrase "get them to thinking" and it grates. I would've used "get them to think" instead of "get them to thinking". Interestingly later in the sentence "get them to forget" appears. I have not heard of "get someone to doing" used in speech or seen it in writing. It seemingly has the same meaning as "get them to think". Google Books seems to have enough hits to convince me this is not a typo.

... a mistake busting the big press boys on the head — that knock on the head might get them to thinking and the big presses — aside from an earlier New York Times and some editions of The Christian Science Monitor — stopped thinking with ... (source)

If we could get them to thinking about something else, maybe they would loosen their grip. (source)

"Get them to doing", on the other hand, is much more uncommon, as I would expect. Why is "get them to thinking" used? Is it regional/dialectal?

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  • Halfway through reading your post, I thought it was a typo for "get them thinking". hmmm...
    – AIQ
    Apr 20 '20 at 7:59
  • "get them to reading" returns even more Google results. Eg (from Google): "Not only will this likely get them to reading more regularly".
    – user57928
    Apr 20 '20 at 9:50
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Both sound fine to me as a native speaker, though the first ("get them to thinking") implies the speaker wants "them" to engage in a continuous action.

That said, as an American, I feel like "get them to thinking" is more a British English construction, though I can't cite you any evidence on that.

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  • Are you saying "We will get them to doing a gig." sounds fine to you? Would you mind sharing what part of the U.S. you are from/grew up in?
    – Eddie Kal
    Apr 20 '20 at 21:50
  • "We'll get them to doing gigs.",plural is fine
    – Lambie
    Jul 29 '20 at 17:08
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While it certainly sounds informal, it makes sense to me. Maybe you can understand it better like this:

get them to think... = get them to [a point at which they will] think...

get them to thinking... = get them to [a point at which they will be] thinking...

I do agree that the former sounds more natural, though.

Hopefully this helps someone!

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  • 1
    While this could make sense, wouldn't the same logic apply to "get them to doing a gig"? I don't think most speakers would find "get them to doing a gig" natural.
    – Eddie Kal
    May 8 '20 at 0:40
  • 1
    @EddieKal In my opinion, that is different because doing a gig is not habitual. "We'll get them to doing gigs" sounds alright to me, like, "we'll train these aspiring musicians to the point where they're doing gigs". May 8 '20 at 0:57
  • @EddieKal What say you? May 18 '20 at 23:52
  • I say this answer deserves an upvote, though a fuller answer with examples comparing other verbs would be better. I was hoping to get input from other people, so I decided to hold off my upvote (just so the system will bump the question up from time to time), but I promise you will get my upvote.
    – Eddie Kal
    May 18 '20 at 23:57
  • However, I wonder if there isn't more to it than your explanation. As I have mentioned in the question and several comments, "get them to thinking" is well-attested on Google Books, but "get them to reading" only returns 1, "get them to doing" barely anything at all. The first hit for "get them to doing" on Google Books is my question right here. So what is so special about "thinking"?
    – Eddie Kal
    May 19 '20 at 0:05
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The text is from a book and the expression is in a dialogue.

to is used for purpose or finality in English.

  • He got me to think the Earth was flat. [and end result of what he got me to do]

  • He got me to thinking the Earth was flat. [a noun, to engage in an activity of the brain]

  • He got me thinking the Earth was flat.

Whether or not you use the to, the meaning is the same.

I won't speak for any English here except for AmE, where both would be commonly heard.

[special note: We'll get them (to) doing gigs, by gosh.]

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I have not read the entire text of all of the sources listed in the question. But, I do not think its grammatical correctness should be debated here. The style of writing does not seem to try to emphasize grammatical correctness. Quite the contrary. The speaker of the dialogue in each source material seems to be talking in a regional dialect or colloquialism. When reading brief snippets of the source material, a different regional accent is brought to mind in my imagination. The use of the particular phrasing gives a distinct flavor to the character of the dialogue’s speaker. My guess would be that the grammatical errors are intentionally done by the authors. Overuse of words or phrases such as “to” or “be” feeds into the stereotype of certain regionalism and dialects.

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The action of thinking (in this context) is continuous, so requires the present participle.

In other words "get them to thinking about anything else", is not equivalent to "get them to think about anything else" (nor "get them thinking about anything else", but the reason for the inclusion of "to" is a probably worthy of its own question), but rather "get them to start to think about anything else". The idea is not to make them think, and then stop thinking, but to keep them thinking.

By contrast, "forget" is being used as a non-continuous stative - once they forget something, they have forgotten it. They do not continue forgetting it.

Using an example that OP has raised in comments to help them to understand the matter: If I am training a band on how to play their instruments, and I am not particularly confident in their staying-power or long term success, I can say "I can get them to play a gig" (finite/complete, singular), while if I think that they may continue in their success, then I would say "I can get them to playing gigs" (continuous, plural)

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