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The English language features a variety of homophones-words that sound alike but have different meanings. Some of the most commonly confused are "there," "their," and "they're," three words with the same pronunciation and similar spellings.
How to Use "There"
"There" is a pronoun that's often used to start a sentence and also an adverb meaning "at that place." As a pronoun, "there" is a syntactic expletive that's typically used to introduce a noun or a clause:
- There is a house on the hill.
- There is something I need to talk to you about.
"There" is also used as an adverb in reference to locations. It means the opposite of the word "here":
- I need to find out what's going on over there.
- She loved France and often thought about taking another trip there.
Both usages of the word may sometimes be found in the same sentence:
- There are two boys hiding over there.
How to Use "Their"
"Their" is the possessive pronoun form of "they." It is used to indicate that something belongs to a plural subject:
- Their hands are in their pockets.
- The kids were eager to finish playing their game.
How to Use "They're"
"They're" is a contraction of "they are." It is no different from other contractions such as "you're" ("you are") or "can't" ("cannot"). "They're" is found in many informal contexts in which you could also write "they are":
- Alligators are dangerous, but they're also lazy.
- They're looking for a way to fix the problem.
Although they're spelled similarly, "there," "their," and "they're" have very different meanings. Once you grasp them, it's easy to use each word correctly.
- "There" refers to place: If you're talking about where someone or something is located, use the word "there." For example: Jimmy's keys are not here; he must have left them back there at the office. "There" can also be used to introduce a new subject. For example: There are many excellent recipes in the cookbook.
- "Their" refers to possession: If you're talking about something that belongs to someone or something else, use the word "their." For example: The ducks are very loud today; their honking can be heard for miles around.
- "They're" is a contraction: As a shortened version of "they are," "they're" may be used in any context where you could substitute "they are." For example: The children are unhappy because they're not allowed to watch any TV tonight.
How to Remember the Differences
There are a few memory tricks to help you remember the differences between "there," "their," and "they're." The first is that only one of these words is a contraction: "they're." If you've used "they're" in a sentence, ask yourself if you could replace it with the words "they are." If you can't, you've made a mistake and you need to use "there" or "their" instead.
"There" contains the word "here," a reminder that "there" refers to place. "Their," on the other hand, contains the word "heir," a reminder that this word refers to possession.
- Barrett, Grant. "Perfect English Grammar: The Indispensable Guide to Excellent Writing and Speaking." Zephyros Press, 2016.
- Straus, Jane. "The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: The Mysteries of Grammar and Punctuation Revealed." Jane Straus, 2006.