English words Don’t (usually) End with “u”

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

Is it proper to use “thru” as a replacement for “through” in professional writing?

My knee-jerk reaction is, “Good Heavens! Never!”

The spelling “thru” has an entry in the tolerant Merriam-Webster that jumps to through.The OED has no entry for “thru,” although the spelling is listed along with many other historical variations in the through entry.

As a modern alternate spelling of through, “thru” has resisted the efforts of various reform organizations, newspapers, and people in high places to get it accepted by the general reading and writing public.

When the American Philological Association issued a list of words needing reform in 1876, through was on it. Through was on the lists issued by the National Education Association in 1898, and the Simplified Spelling Board in 1906.

Noah Webster, Teddy Roosevelt, and Mark Twain all used their bully pulpits to promote the spelling “thru.” The Chicago Tribune started using “thru” in 1934, but finally gave up in 1975 and went back to through.

That’s not to say that “thru” won’t creep into acceptance in another 50-100 years Certainly texters spell it that way to save time, as many sign painters do to save space. In other contexts, however, for awhile yet, the spelling “thru” screams non-standard.

Why does this particular spelling reform resist acceptance when we’ve happily accepted such changes as theater for theatre, catalog for catalogue, and color for colour?

I think there are two reasons.

One, the word through is introduced to readers at such an early level of literacy that the mind and eye become habituated to it. Because it is among the 200 most commonly used words in English, the beginning reader gets plenty of practice in recognizing it.

Two, “thru” doesn’t look like an English word.

This is one of Romalda Spalding’s rules for “silent final e” in The Writing Road to Reading:

English words don’t end in “u”.

The example she gives is blue. The e is not needed to change the sound of the preceding vowel. Theoretically, we could write “blu,” but the word looks unfinished, like “thru.”

NOTE: Like every rule, Spalding’s has its exceptions. We use several words–most of them borrowed from the French–that end in -u: adieu, bureau, impromptu, etc., but they don’t bother us because they’ve remained sufficiently undigested as to strike us as having a “foreign” spelling. Native English words and fully-digested foreign borrowings look very strange when spelled with a u not followed by e. Consider:

We are strolling down the avenu.
She will argu about everything.
The detective discovered a clu.
I will continu until I’ve finished.
Give the actor his cu.
Give the devil his du.

Bottom line: The spelling “thru” just looks wrong.

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27 Responses to “English words Don’t (usually) End with “u””

  • Frank Elliott

    I had no idea that “thru” has such a long and futile history. Maeve, I learned something today!

  • Hari Krishnan

    English words do end with u. Flu. Bureau. Gnu, Snafu are some of the words which I can recall right now–apart from the adopted or loan words like Guru. Language is so difficult to be confined within specific rules….eh?

  • Hari Krishnan

    What I missed saying: I agree with you. Thru is awful. It feels like someone rubs my teeth with an emery sheet when I come across such expressions.

  • Phil Dragonetti

    I’m not in favor of dropping the final e in words like clue—but with “through” it is quite a bit different— we are dropping 3 letters.

    Since “through” is such a common word it lengthens a novel by who knows how many pages, and how many trees, would be saved by dropping the 3 letters???

    I routinely write “thru” in my informal writing.

    I think that the final e in blue serves a purpose—for it lengthens the u sound. Blue has the sound of bluuu where as snafu has the shorter u sound. The same with words like clue. The final u sound is somewhat lengthened—unless, of course, you are a New York Citier who clips his vowels.

    An aside to Hari Krishnan: Bureau is a French word that means Office.

  • Holly

    Interesting information. What do you all think of the use of “thru” in the compound “drive-thru”? (Specifically with regards to financial institutions.) Do you think it should be “drive-through”? Banks and Credit Unions list their lobby and drive-thru hours on signage and in brochures, newsletters etc. I don’t recall ever seeing it spelled drive-through though. (tho? another shortened word)

    Anyway, just was curious about your thoughts there.
    Thanks!

  • Greg Landretti

    Let’s condemn the word to the iPhone lexicon and be done with it.

    For example:

    R U thru
    I M thru
    I thru up

  • Cindy Cotter

    So we’re agreed: “Through” should be spelled “thrue.” True?

    I’m curious about why it doesn’t rhyme with “rough” and “tough.” But enough. I’m through, thru, thrue.

  • lord_frolic@yahoo.com

    If “thru” has not been readily accepted because words ending in ‘u’ look incomplete and there are many examples of words ending in ‘ue’, then why does a revised spelling of “thrue” look wrong to me? Shouldn’t a word following an established rule look more natural?

  • Steve Hall

    Phil and Cindy have made the point I was going to make, so I won’t repeat their logic.

    @Hari: “Flu” is a shortened form of the word “influenza.” As was pointed out in the article, “bureau” is a French word, adopted into English. And “snafu” is not a word but an acronym for “situation normal: all fouled up.” (Why influenza isn’t shortened to “flue,” which is an English word, is beyond me. Perhaps Maeve can enlighten us?)

  • thebluebird11

    I think the key to answering the question is the word “professional.” I routinely shorten words for informal texting and emailing, including U (you), ur (your, you’re), cu (see you), gonna (going to), thru, tho, and so on. I would NEVER EVER use these shortened forms in formal writing, including texts and emails to my boss.
    @hari krishnan: Since the gnu is not an animal indigenous to America, we call it by its native name (from Africa), so it’s not an English word. Flu is the short form for Influenza, accepted in formal writing because most medicalese gets “lay-ed” down (by which I mean, simplified for lay people). SNAFU actually originated as an acronym, so also doesn’t really count as a “word” ending in U. And other words from other languages are just that.

  • Kathryn

    Gee, if we replaced through with thru, think of all the hogs we could generate!

  • Chris M

    The only place I can see using “thru” as an acceptable word is for “Drive-Thru”. I just can’t people saying, ‘We got dinner in the Drive-Through.” It sounds like you’re going into the building with your car.

  • Michael

    Nice piece again Maeve, but when you say,

    “Why does this particular spelling reform resist acceptance when we’ve happily accepted such changes as theater for theatre, catalog for catalogue, and color for colour?”

    You… er… are, of course, speaking of the happiness of people in the United States. As an Australian, I would argue that the rest of the English-speaking world would not be particularly happy one little bit. Please consider this a gentle and respectful reminder that your readership extends beyond US borders.

    We stick to our favourite spellings and pronunciations partly as resistance against American dominance, as once Americans asserted their cultural identity against British hegemony by dropping the ‘u’ off colour, connexion to connection, or saying ‘lootenant’. By doing so they’ve added to the colour(!) and variety of the language where once it had been lost through/thru standardisation/-ization a la Dr Johnson, et al. Nevertheless, I amongst hundreds of millions resist the linguistic hegemony of the United States.

    One suspects thru’s acceptance or rejection is much about the same. I bristle at the thawt of dropping the ‘ough’ because, while liberal and radical in my politics, I’m conservative in my language. I like to know where words, phrases, accents and manners of speech come from. I take delight in reading in the form and utterance of the word something of its history and the history of the language.

    Future English speakers will doubtless look upon ‘through’ as archaic, and doubtless it will be listed as such in the purely digital 2100 edition of the OED. ‘Thru’ will embody cultural history for the language’s inheritors as much as ‘through’ does for me today. But, for now at least, up with it I will not put.

    Enuff said. (Except that I still spell ‘connexion’ thus, and the OED says I can, so there!)

  • thebluebird11

    Awww, Michael, don’t get your hackles up. There’s room for all of us on this planet. Color, colour, to-may-to, to-mah-to…I still like to spell “grey” with an E, and catalogue gets its proper ending, even tho/though I live in the US. I would be crucified if I spelled it “connexion,” altho I love that spelling. Really, my biggest dream is to get to Australia, and I wonder if once I get there, I’d ever want to leave…. 🙂

  • Michael

    At the risk of belabouring the point 😉 Perhaps I wasn’t clear, because there is no offence taken and no hackles raised. Not in the slightest. My point is not which English is better, only that the English each of uses is *ours* – part of us; our identity – collectively and individually. Hence my penchant for ‘connexion’ when most of the world (including the UK) has moved on. Ultimately, English is as diverse as its 1,800 million speakers. On the other paw, you and I, though we prefer our ‘plows’ or our ‘ploughs’ our ‘lootenants’ or our ‘leftenants’, probably share a preference for ‘through’ over ‘thru’ because the latter is alien to us both. A few things are different, but most are the same. Alas, not always for the better: we have ‘drive-thrus’ too.

  • Rhonda

    A teacher at my school in the mid 1970s used to contract through to thro’ – usually with an apostrophe, but not always.

  • ChrisD

    I too am an Aussie and surprisingly enough also like to use connexion o_O I was dismayed by the color/colour assumption. That Americanization is a pet hate of mine along with a few others. Dour is still dour after all 😉 Furthermore, does anyone else think it strange the move from centre to center as with the theatre, yet still things may be central but not centeral? Is this point too theaterical? This somehow makes more sense that treating the -e as a suffix?

  • codebeard

    “You”, of course, is probably the most common exception to the rule. I’m surprised that nobody pointed this out.

  • Peter

    The only place I can see using “thru” as an acceptable word is for “Drive-Thru”. I just can’t people saying, ‘We got dinner in the Drive-Through.”

    You’re American, right? 🙂

    We stick to our favourite spellings and pronunciations partly as resistance against American dominance, as once Americans asserted their cultural identity against British hegemony by dropping the ‘u’ off colour, connexion to connection, or saying ‘lootenant’. By doing so they’ve added to the colour(!) and variety of the language where once it had been lost through/thru standardisation/-ization a la Dr Johnson, et al. Nevertheless, I amongst hundreds of millions resist the linguistic hegemony of the United States.

    That’s good, but “connection” and “standardization” are perfectly good English spellings (the “ise” spelling preferred in most modern publications a recent innovation, and one the Oxford scholars advise against), and lieutenant as “lootenant” is not an Americanism as such (historically, the pronunciation “leftenant” was reserved for non-naval military ranks; a naval lieutenant, a sheriff’s lieutenant or the lieutenant governor of a colony, etc., was a “lootenant”…but not with the stress on the first syllable)

  • Michael

    Yes, ‘connection’ and the ‘-ize’ spellings are perfectly good, in anyone’s books. So, for that matter are ‘yogurt’, ‘yoghurt’ or ‘yoghourt’, ‘kilogramme’ or ‘gram’, ‘splendour’ or ‘splendor’. You can ‘write to’ me or simply ‘write’ me. Diversity is a wonderful thing, and the diversity of Englishes that were (sadly) lost when British English was standardised has now, in a sense, been regained with so many Englishes around the globe.

    The point I was making was not which is better or worse, but how much these become a part of us – a part of who we are. So, ‘thru’ doesn’t look right to me (I’m thirty-nine), but might look fine, even standard, to Gen-Y. The fact that MW includes it as a variant spelling seems to suggest it’s on its way to becoming formalised, at least in the States.

    ‘Lootenant’ sounds… not bad exactly, just foreign. It reminds me of American cop shows and Star Trek. And, I understand that it’s no longer accepted in Commonwealth navies. At least my mate who was a Lieutenant-Commander in the RN and later the RAN, insisted on ‘leftenant’. Old spellings include ‘leuftenant’ and go back to the 1300s.

    Don’t you think it’s kind of fun that the language isn’t – or at least only sometimes – phonetic, consistent and logical? I do! Because I feel like I can muck about with it, call bits of it my own and still keep within the rules!

  • Maeve

    @Michael
    Yes, I should have noted that I was speaking about U.S. speakers — some U.S. speakers. For my own part, although I spell colour color, I have a hard time not writing catalogue and theatre.

    @thebluebird11
    I didn’t see anything in Michael’s courteous and helpful remarks to stir hackles. If you want to see hackles, I have some really venomous emails telling me what’s wrong with American English. The assumption always seems to be that while American speakers are busy changing the language, nothing has changed about English in England since the 17th century.

    @Everybody who has commented
    Thanks for this great discussion.

  • Hari Krishnan

    Thanks thebluebird11 for your explanations. Now I have a few more: Plateau, menu, vertu, genu, thou, milieu, and lastly in lieu, in situ, pari passu. These are some more I could think of after I posted. I know that some words are not of English origin. But, plateau, menu, though, milieu at least should qualify. If they do not, I learn. Thanks for taking your time to explain. (Please note that this is not a challenge like stand. It is only an exercise in learning.)

  • Hari Krishnan

    ~~~>But, plateau, menu, though<~~~~ read this as thou.

  • Hari Krishnan

    And, I faintly remember that there are some 52 ways of spelling the syllable -shun. Can you please, in one of your articles, or series of them, enlist them? As far as I can remember there are only two words that end with the speling -shion for shun. Fashion and cushion. -tion, cion, sion, ssion, and how many more can be listed this way? It should be an interesting exercise.

  • thebluebird11

    @hari krishnan:
    Plateau (French), as you mentioned. Menu, milieu, in lieu, ditto. Vertu (virtue; Italian). Genu, in situ, pari passu (Latin). Thou (if you mean “you,” comes from middle English; or maybe you mean the short form of “thousand”; this is slang). Basically my point is that we have appropriated these words and “use” them when we speak English, so I guess now they are considered English words. I mean, every word came from somewhere else, like table, cup, pizza…
    @Maeve: No worries about Michael’s hackles (or lack thereof). I was just teasing him. I have followed this site for long enough to know that people from all over the world are on here, native English speakers (yes, including we Americans who “butcher” it) and non-native English speakers alike. I spent my first 30 years in NYC and the last 20 in Florida. One of my jobs is medical transcription, so with this whole background, I am quite accustomed to hearing many different accents and phrasing, sometimes translated literally from the speaker’s native language (e.g. “I’m doing shopping”). Rather than upsetting me, it intrigues me. Rather than wanting to make me scold someone for not speaking “proper English” (whatever that is), it makes me want to learn more about THEIR language and culture. I think tolerance is the key; the dictionary should not be a bible and a misspelling should not be a sin (at least, not the first time LOLOL). Consider it a guide. And let’s promote esperanto.

  • Cardinal Batslinger

    I am in favour of thru as a variant and use it regularly in informal writing.
    I am also thru with enough: enuf is enough.

    In esperanto we say “tra” & “sufiĉa”.

  • thebluebird11

    @cardinal: I love English for all its quirks and bizarrities; it gives it unlimited richness and flexibility. I love esperanto for its LACK of quirks and bizarrities; amazingly enough, its structure and predictability also allow for inifinite flexibility. If only it would become the universal language it longs to be…esperanto and peace on earth 🙂

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