Do we need to abbreviate ‘the’?

Posted by on July 22, 2013

© MacmillanThe English language changes all the time and on its own terms through shifts, mostly gradual, in collective usage. But that doesn’t stop people trying to engineer sudden changes in how we write. Earlier this year we discussed a new phonetic alphabet, SaypU, and now Australian restaurateur Paul Mathis has designed a new symbol, Ћ, which he hopes we’ll start using to abbreviate the word the.

To help make his case, Mathis released a cheerful promotional video, though I can’t agree with its claim that the “has never been recognised for its impressive usage” – I think most people know it’s the most used word in the language – and I’m sceptical of the claim that the five most used words in English are the, be, to, of, and and – in writing it’s the, of, and, to, and in. But these are just quibbles; what about Ћ?

Ћ is already a character known as Tshe in the Cyrillic script, which will help the symbol’s availability. (The resemblance is apparently coincidental.) Ultimately, though, its success as shorthand for the depends on whether people adopt it and make its use habitual and normal. And while I wish Mathis the best of luck, I can’t see Ћ catching on very widely. Some people already abbreviate the as de, da, th, t/ or d, though these are effectively restricted to informal contexts such as text messages and Twitter. In Old English a þ (“thorn”) with a stroke was used the same way.

Complete omission of the article is more common. This practice is customary in newspaper headline style, which has helped popularise it. For example, the recent BBC headline “‘World’s oldest calendar’ discovered in Scottish field” would, in normal prose, be “‘The World’s oldest calendar’ has been discovered in a Scottish field”, with both a definite and an indefinite article reinstated. We’re so used to seeing these left out that we register the meaning and hardly notice the ellipsis; many of us automatically do the same thing ourselves in tweets and texts.

SaypU was created with the hope of helping foster world peace and harmony; Ћ is more about communicative efficiency. Mathis told the Sydney Morning Herald he didn’t think his innovation was important or world-changing, but hoped it would be useful by saving the time and character spaces so vital to modern electronic communication. Language reformers differ widely in their motivations, but they tend to be an optimistic bunch. That’s just as well, because any attempt to alter usage wholesale has its work cut out.

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Comments (5)
  • Stan:
    If abbreviating “the” with a new alphabetic symbol has any validity, I can’t think what it might be; to my mind, this is another example of someone having too much time on his hands. Perhaps he should pay more attention to his restaurant busiress. I’m not anti-change, but to paraphrase Harry Truman, “I’m from Missouri, and you have to show me” why anyone would bother. It reminds me of the eighteenth and nineteenth century’s authors’ habit of sprinkling abbreviations through their novels; the convention adds nothing to the narrative, but it certainly does annoy the reader; if the latter was the authors’ goal, they achieved it admirably.

    Posted by marc leavitt on 22nd July, 2013
  • Marc: I think efficiency is the main selling point. In many electronic communication contexts, time and particularly space are at a premium, so something that saves two characters in so common a position is, I think, worth an experiment. But as I describe above, there are existing alternatives that look less exotic and come more naturally, so it remains to be seen whether Ћ’s advantages win enough hearts and minds to be considered a success. Time will tell.

    Posted by Stan on 22nd July, 2013
  • Unless this sign becomes readily available on physical or virtual keyboards it won’t catch up. In fact it may be less easily understood than a simple “d”. It saves space on the messagge, yes, but it occupies space on a keyboard as a single use character (unlikely to be used to form other words). And virtual keyboard space on mobile devices, tablets and so is crucial. Also, by the time I fetch this sign on the special characters option I might as well type the entire “the” or use a simple “d” or eliminate it altogether.

    Posted by Rogerio on 12th August, 2013
  • Rogerio: I think the designer is working to increase the sign’s availability, especially on virtual keyboards in handheld digital devices. But as you say, its limitation as a single-use character is a serious disadvantage when compared to alternatives such as the letter d.

    Posted by Stan on 12th August, 2013
  • […] Do we need to abbreviate ‘the’? looks at a recent orthographic innovation: Ћ, intended as a one-character symbol for the. If there were a pressing need for such an abbreviation, Ћ would stand a better chance of catching on. But we have lots of more familiar alternatives: […]

    Posted by On caring less, and a new abbreviation (Ћ) | Sentence first on 15th August, 2013
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