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English might be the most common second language on the planet, but that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s the easiest language to learn. The maddening number of homonyms in English is enough to create confusion in anyone, learner and native speaker alike. The Internet crime of mixing up “your” and “you’re”, which many seem to believe should be punishable by death, is only the start of that mess.

So, today we’re clearing up (hopefully once and for all) what the difference is between “there”, “their”, and “they’re”.

There

The house is over there.

There” is, simply put, an adverb used to determine the location of an object – it means in, at, or to a certain position.

Hold my drink. I’m going in there.

You can also use “there” as an introductory word for starting a sentence. In that case, it essentially functions as a pronoun.

There is nothing wrong with eating ice cream for breakfast.

You’ll also probably be familiar with a couple of phrases and idioms that use “there”. For example: Been there, done that; there and then; there you/he/she/we go(es) again.

Their

Their house is so clean.

Their” is a possessive determiner. Although English has a very limited case system, a few do still pop up every now and again, and “their” is a prime example of that – it is the possessive case of the pronoun “they”, meaning “belonging to or associated with them”.

Although originally used only in the plural, they/them/their is now often also to refer to:

– people of unidentified or unknown sex – Someone left their umbrella here.

– gender-non-binary folk – I identify as neither a woman nor a man. I prefer the pronouns they/them.

– gender-neutral pronoun – A teacher should really know their students’ names.

You can read more about the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.

They’re

They’re cleaning right now.

“They’re” is the shortened version of “they are.” The contraction shortens the two words into a single phrase, making it easier to pronounce in speech. Although it was frowned upon earlier, use of contractions is now becoming more widespread also in written language.

How to tell them apart?

Say, for example, you come across a sentence such as: They’re over there, cleaning their house. It is a perfectly natural English sentence and also contains all three of these confusing homophones. So, how can you quickly determine which to use in which case?

The easiest answer is simply to take a moment and think about which one you need to use in your writing. Luckily, since all three sound the same, no one will know if you’re mixing up “their” and “there” when you’re speaking. And when it comes to writing things down, you usually have a bit more time to get things right.

To test, whether you’ve used the right word, you can also always try substitutions. If you’ve used “there”, you can try swapping the word for “here” to if the sentence still makes sense. If it does, you’ve used the right word. You can also remember that “there” already has the word “here” hidden inside it – there – showing that you should use it for location.

The substitution works in our first example sentence: The house is over here.

If you’re using “their”, you can try substituting the word for any other possessive determiner, like her or my.

In our example: My house is so clean. That shows that the right form has been used.

For “they’re” just see if your sentence works if you wrote out the full phrase – they are. It’s easy to keep in mind that the apostrophe equals contraction and that the one word is actually two.

Again, They are cleaning right now is a perfectly acceptable sentence, meaning that we’ve used the correct homophone.

Conclusion – Tell there, their, and they’re apart with substitutions

The confusing spelling is one of the more infuriating aspects of English. It is especially troublesome when it comes to words such as “there”, “their, and “they’re” since they occur together quite often. But, to help you choose the right one, just take your time in your writing, think about which one you need to use, and the double-check by trying a few substitutions to make sure you’ve got the right one.


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