Do we go through a drive-thru or drive-through? That question is confusing enough to make anyone want to relax with a cheeseburger and some fries.
According to our primary American-English dictionaries (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language), drive-through is the preferred spelling, while drive-thru is an accepted informal variant.1 However, the use of drive-thru has become so common that using drive-through now feels incorrect.
For example, which looks normal to you?
- I skipped breakfast, so I visited the drive-through on my way to work.
- I skipped breakfast, so I visited the drive-thru on my way to work.
For most of us, the second option appears correct because fast-food restaurants and other businesses with drive-up services generally use the informal spelling on their signage—now it just looks right.
The thru spelling also shows up frequently on street signs because fewer letters mean cheaper signs! Today, when I spot a street sign with the through spelling I think it looks odd, even though I know it is grammatically correct.
So, what should you do within your own business writing or other formal content? My suggestion is to always use drive-through except in reference to businesses that use drive-thru on their signs and when quoting street signs.
Further Reading: Which Dictionary Is Best for You?
1. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed. (2016), s.v. “drive-through”; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (2014), s.v. “drive-through”; Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 5th ed. (2016), s.v. “drive-through.”
2. The Associated Press Stylebook 2020–2022 (New York: Associated Press, 2020), 92.