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

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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.?

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holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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

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