CLOSE
iStock
iStock

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

iStock
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'?
*
Why Is It 'Eleven, Twelve' Instead of 'Oneteen, Twoteen'?
*
Why Isn't 'Arkansas' Pronounced Like 'Kansas'?
*
Why Is There an 'R' in Mrs.?

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
iStock
iStock

In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
iStock

Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER