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A Word, Please: A wide array of influences drive ‘through’

Now showing at a news site near you: the spelling “drive-thru.”

That’s right, any time your favorite newspaper or news website has occasion to write about someone receiving a cheeseburger through a car window, it could be written “thru” instead of “through.” That’s because the Associated Press Stylebook now allows that spelling, a change the editors made a few years ago to supplant the guide’s longtime preference for “drive-through.”

AP is the most influential style in news media. Even publications that don’t follow it tend to use some variation of it. A place in the AP guide is the next best thing to guaranteed legitimacy. Thus, “drive-thru” is pretty much legit.

An atrocity of biblical proportions, right? Not so fast.

It’s easy to assume that the “thru” spelling is a simple erosion of the language. It’s one of the most popular examples of how commerce and technology can take a proper term, use it wrong and mess everybody up in the process — confusing children and infecting the public psyche until eventually a wrong spelling like “thru” supplants the correct one like “through.”

Had our language achieved a state of freeze-it-in-time-now perfection in the 1950s, that would be a valid point. On the other hand, had we been born a couple of centuries earlier, we’d have a very different view.

“Thru” was correct and proper a full 100 years before some clowns got the idea to stick an O in the middle and a G and H at the end. But even that’s not the beginning of the story.

“Through” started out as an Old English word often spelled “thurh.” That was back when the language was completely phonetic. But then Old Norse and French influences began seeping in, with new spellings reflecting those groups’ influence on the pronunciation. In fact, “through” has been spelled at least 50 different ways over the years, including “thru,” “thorgh,” “thorth” and eventually “through.”

Our modern spelling of “through” isn’t some timeless pillar of correctness. It’s just one weird, illogical moment in the evolution of the word. You could even argue that “thru” is better than “through,” as I’m sure any nonnative English speaker grappling with “through,” “though,” “tough” and “trough” would agree.

Should you start using “through” in place of “thru”? Nope. Not in this century. Whatever acceptability “thru” has earned applies only in the term “drive-thru.” If you want to write “Walk thru that door,” “It flew thru the air” or “I’m thru with you,” there isn’t a stylebook or dictionary that will back you up.

Even if you’re talking about the window through which cheeseburgers magically emerge, you might not want to use the “thru” spelling. Yes, the Associated Press Stylebook tells publishers to use it. But AP is all alone on that one.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary doesn’t have an entry for “drive-thru.” Search for that term on the dictionary’s website and you’ll be rerouted to the entry for “drive-through.” There, you’ll see that “thru” represents a “variant spelling” of the form Merriam considers standard: drive-through. Merriam is the default dictionary for publications edited in Chicago style, the leading style for most books and magazines.

Editors in AP style bow to a different authority. For any issue not explicitly discussed in the style guide, AP says to follow Webster’s New World College Dictionary. What does that dictionary say? “Drive-thru” isn’t official enough to warrant its own entry. Instead, it’s a variant spelling of “drive-through.”

If AP’s own preferred dictionary doesn’t have much love for “drive-thru,” the rest of us can avoid it as well. Just don’t be surprised if you see it in your local newspaper.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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