How Did English End Up With There/They're/Their?

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iStock

Admit it. You get it wrong sometimes. I don’t care how many degrees you have, how steeped you are in the highest register of formal discourse, how vicious you are with the red pen, how many children’s wrists you have slapped with a ruler. You sometimes write there when you mean their or they’re.

Yes, you. You may catch it every time, correct it before pressing “send,” but you do it. The language just makes it so easy to do. Not only are these three words pronounced exactly the same, they are all constantly in use in everyday discourse. Wait and weight or flour and flower just aren’t as frequent. Most people aren’t going to mix those up. So there’s no reason to be especially proud of not mixing them up, or to make smug memes about them. But there/their/they’re is a cleverly laid, dastardly trap. To tout your mastery of this trio is an act of pride in your ability to skip over the trap.

So who set this trap? We did, of course, which is to say all the English speakers who came before us. First, in the earliest stages of Old English, we had the word for "there," which was then spelled þǽr (thǽr). The word for "their" was hiera, so there was no problem telling them apart. But when Scandinavian settlers starting coming over around the year 1000, we started borrowing a few things from them, including their word for "their": þaire (thaire).

Now we had two words with somewhat similar, but still different pronunciations and spellings. The following centuries brought a huge upheaval in English pronunciation through the Great Vowel Shift and the development of Middle and Modern English, while at the same time the spread of the printing press and literacy brought stable spelling conventions into being. Through all this, there at one point or another got the spellings thar, thaire, ther, yar, theer, thiar, and thore. Their went through its own changes with thayir, thayre, yaire, and theer. Sometimes they overlapped and had the same spellings, sometimes they didn’t, but when the dust settled and the final habits had been established, we were left with one pronunciation and two spellings.

The latest entry into the trio was they’re. People didn’t write contractions of this kind until the late 16th century, though they did say them before then. Writers began to use the apostrophe to stand for missing letters, as it does in 'tis or o’er. It couldn’t be helped that "they are" shortened into a word that sounded just like their and there. The same thing happened to I’ll/aisle and we’ve/weave, but aisle and weave didn’t show up often enough to turn the similarity into a trap.

It didn’t have to be this way. If things had gone differently, we might have ended up with one spelling for all of them, or at least for the first two. This is what happened to rose (the flower) and rose (the past tense of rise), or rock (stone) and rock (to sway). Those came from totally different words that began to be pronounced the same, and then came to be spelled the same. (Chaucer wrote of “the son that roose as rede as rose.”) Those words don’t cause any confusion, and neither would a word like ther, if that’s what we had somehow ended up with for all members of the trio.

But that’s not what we ended up with, and so we add there/their/they’re to the long list of things that make writing harder than speaking, things to keep track of, double check, and correct, lest you fall into ther traps. Ther everywhere.

See Also...

Why Does 'Will Not' Become 'Won't'?
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Why Is It 'Eleven, Twelve' Instead of 'Oneteen, Twoteen'?
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Why Isn't 'Arkansas' Pronounced Like 'Kansas'?
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Why Is There an 'R' in Mrs.?

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

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iStock

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

If March 15 Is the Ides of March, What Does That Make March 16?

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iStock.com/bycostello

Everyone knows that the soothsayer in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was talking about March 15 when he warned the Roman emperor to "beware the Ides of March." We also all know Caesar's response: "Nah, I gotta head into the office that day." But if March 15 is the Ides of March, what does that make March 16?

At the time of Caesar's assassination, Romans were using the Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar himself). This was a modified version of the original Roman calendar, and it is very similar to the one we use today (which is called the Gregorian calendar). A major difference, however, was how Romans talked about the days.

Each month had three important dates: the Kalends (first day of the month), the Ides (the middle of the month), and the Nones (ninth day before the Ides, which corresponded with the first phase of the Moon). Instead of counting up (i.e., March 10, March 11, March 12), Romans kept track by counting backwards and inclusively from the Kalends, Ides, or Nones. March 10 was the sixth day before the Ides of March, March 11 was the fifth day before the Ides of March, and so on.

Because it came after the Ides, March 16 would’ve been referred to in the context of April: "The 17th day before the Kalends of April." The abbreviated form of this was a.d. XVII Kal. Apr., with "a.d." standing for ante diem, meaning roughly "the day before."

So, had Julius Caesar been murdered on March 16, the soothsayer's ominous warning would have been, "Beware the 17th day before the Kalends of April." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

This story first ran in 2016.

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