Thinking it thru

I was editing an article a few days back in a little trade magazine where I work sometimes.

A couple of minutes in I noticed the author had used the phrase ‘drive thru’. Automatically I changed it to ‘drive through’. I probably quietly sighed and rolled my eyes too. Soon, however, I realised that the more informal spelling had been used throughout the piece so I set about changing them all to what I believed to be the correct form. Then I noticed that the name of the business which was the subject of the feature also included the words ‘Drive Thru’.

At this point I started to pay attention. A quick Google search revealed that this business title did indeed include the word ‘Thru’. Taking the view that the proprietor has the right to name their own business as they please, I left it alone. But this created the inconsistency of having the term ‘Drive Thru’ as the business title but ‘drive through’ when I was describing it as a generic term. A little bit more Googling revealed that ‘drive thru’ is now commonly accepted as the preferred spelling for a drive through. One website described my assumed spelling of ‘drive through’ as ‘anachronistic’.

I sat back. In truth I was a little shocked. How had this happened? I had that peculiar stirring in my brain which occurs occasionally when something which has been obvious to the rest of society for years becomes apparent to me.

I don’t have cause to write the phrase ‘drive through’ (thru) very often, but now I started to think about it. I began seeing ‘drive thru’ appearing often in print and communications. I actually noticed it on road signs directing people towards fast food restaurants. Yet people seemed to be walking past the signs without any apparent care or concern. There were no flaming torches or protestors with cans of spray paint filling in the missing letters.

And those whom I stopped to point out the disparity seemed to think there was more peculiarity in my approach than the lettering on the signs.

I even had an awkward encounter when one business owner asked me why I was taking photographs of his sign. My explanation that I was spending my day researching the evolving spelling of ‘through’ seemed neither to convince or satisfy.

How had it come to this? My first thought was that it must be an American influence. The concept of the drive through restaurant originates there and the spreading influence of US spelling on this side of the Atlantic is well documented. But when I checked US spelling lists it was clear that the accepted spelling there is ‘through’, not ‘thru’.

This led me to phone an American friend. When I put my query to him he very gallantly didn’t say ‘What the hell’s wrong with you? Why don’t you go and get a proper job and do something useful with your life?’ Instead he patiently explained that ‘thru’ was a deliberate misspelling created by US sign writers to save space. Much in the same way that they might use ‘nite’ instead of ‘night’.

And now it’s here, on our signs. Or rather, it’s presumably been here for ages but I’ve only just noticed it.

So I have my answer. We have moved into an time where ‘drive thru’ exists independently and separately from through. Sort of like an embarrassing distant cousin that you only see at weddings, who always gets drunk and tries it on with the bridesmaids.

But it doesn’t end there, because language always evolves. ‘Thru’ is now regularly used in text and electronic communications and seems to have gained traction as an accepted informal usage. I may be one of the last people who still spells out ‘through’ when texting (although admittedly my average time to send a single text is roughly fifteen minutes). It’s reasonable to assume that there will come a point in the distant future where ‘thru’ is the only accepted spelling and to write ‘through’ would be as obscure as scratching out ‘the lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne’ with a quill.

And does it really matter anyway? Not massively, as long as the meaning is clear and the opportunities for confusion and inconsistency are kept to a minimum. Whichever way we spell ‘through’ the planets will still circle the sun, petrol prices will rise and whales will be found dead with their stomachs full of plastic bags.

Although I’m currently helping my young son to learn to read. He gets a list of words sent home every week to memorise. It presumably won’t be very long until ‘through’ is among them. It’s already a tricky one because, according to the phonic system which the school curriculum favours, ‘through’ should really be spelled ‘thrue’ or ‘throo’. I’ll already have to teach him that this is one of those annoying words which just can’t be sounded out. Add in the extra confusion that he now regularly points at signs and asks me what they say (‘Well son, it says ‘thru’ but if you spell it that way at school you’ll be marked wrong, until the point when the people who decide the curriculum accept it as the proper spelling, then you’ll be marked right. And, by the way, threw is a completely different word, so don’t mix them up. Any more questions?’)

It’s a complicated business and I’m not sure I’m any further forward. I’m still a little dissatisfied and confused today as I finish my edit of the article and place it on the page. But I force myself to put it out of my mind. I’m thru with it.

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