Threw, Through, Thru
Twilight from the Twilight and Thebes Show called in with this question.
Grammar girl here. For this podcast, Twilight from the Twilight and Thebes Show called in with a question about homophones:
I'm confused with the word through, [as in] "I looked through this pile of papers." It can't be threw because I'm not throwing the papers. So is it thru? But then whenever I type thru it looks grammatically incorrect for some reason. If you could enlighten me I would much appreciate it.
Twilight, thanks for your question. You're getting at something that I imagine is difficult for a lot of people and especially for people who are just learning English: homophones. These are words that sound the same, but mean different things (misusing them can be very funny). Homophones can be spelled differently--such as threw (t-h-r-e-w) and through (t-h-r-o-u-g-h)--or they can be spelled the same but mean different things—such as fair (f-a-i-r) which can be a noun as in "We went to the state fair" or an adjective as in "He got a fair trial."
First of all, you're right to think that threw (t-h-r-e-w) isn't the right word, because it is the past tense of the verb throw, as in, "Let's throw the bums out."
Through Versus Thru
It gets a little more dicey when trying to decide between through (t-h-r-o-u-g-h) and thru (t-h-r-u). I actually didn't think t-h-r-u was a word when I first heard your question, but I looked it up just to be sure and was really surprised to find it in the dictionary, where it is listed as an informal, simplified spelling of the word t-h-r-o-u-g-h.
Wow. So in some informal instances it appears that it is OK to use thru; but I think I'd be remiss if I actually told you to go ahead and use it. My impression is that using the spelling t-h-r-u is kind of equivalent to dotting your i's with little hearts: people will know what you mean, but they'll think you aren't a very serious person. I would definitely stick with the more formal and widely accepted spelling: t-h-r-o-u-g-h.
Many people are surprised to learn that finding a word in the dictionary doesn't automatically mean that word is widely accepted by society. You'll find the words thru (t-h-r-u), irregardless, and ain't in many dictionaries, but that doesn't mean you should use them in your cover letters. It just means they are in wide enough use that dictionary makers believe the words must be acknowledged and defined.
There are just a couple of instances I could think of where it might be acceptable to use thru (t-h-r-u). One is in a text message to a friend because, like it or not, the expectations for grammar and spelling in text messages between friends are lower than in other forms of writing. Also, people are probably more likely to accept the informal spelling in places where space is extremely tight, such as on road signs, advertisements, or again, in text messaging.
Simplified Spelling Society
You Americans out there who are cringing should remember that one of the reasons we have American spellings of words such as theater, honor, and catalog is that luminaries including Noah Webster, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Theodore Roosevelt advocated for simplified spelling, and many of them also supported simplified spellings of words such as though (tho), through (thru), and night (nite), which of course haven't taken on the cloak of wide acceptability. Roosevelt even tried to mandate that government documents use the simple spellings during his presidency. His proposal was ahead of its time and rejected by Congress, but some of his suggested simplifications have become the current standard spellings (1, 2, 3, 4). The British Simplified Spelling Society, which was founded in 1908—two years after Roosevelt's failed attempt to change spelling in America—still exists, and they often make the news when they protest at the Scripps National Spelling Bee (5).
Theodore Roosevelt's 1906 Letter to the Government Printing Office
An English Homophone Dictionary
A Homophone Quiz
"Drive Thru" image by Jeramey Jannene, Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)