There, Their, and They’re
There are certain homophone errors that are quite common. The subject of today’s post is one of worst offenders. Issues with these three words are in virtually every manuscript I edit. So here’s a quick guide to help you keep them straight.
The overview of antecedents is just a bonus. 🙂
So let’s get to it!
“There” is a chameleon. It can act as a noun, adverb, adjective, and pronoun. As an adverb and a noun, “there” is used to express place, time or position, and it can be both literal and figurative. It can also be used as an interjection denoting surprise, approval, and comfort.
Hang your coat over there and then come meet the family.
There on the hill is where it happened.
He only goes there when he has to.
There, there, no more tears, my dear.
There now, that’s how you do it!
Can you see what’s going on over there?
My there is much different than your there.
As an adjective, “there” is used to add emphasis, to show existence, and to indicate reliability.
Do you see those girls there?
The mark was still there despite his efforts to remove it.
According to Merriam-Webster, when used as a pronoun, “there” introduces “a sentence or clause in which the subject follows the verb” or as a substitute for someone’s name.
There were many people to speak with at the assembly.
There are only two rules that you need to know.
Yo there, can you point me in the right direction?
“Their” is an adjective, generally used to show various forms of possession when referring to a group or collective.
The Johnsons love their children very much.
Their love for you is always constant.
Their thrashing was well deserved.
Those kids really know their ancient mythology.
Back in their day such behavior was unheard of.
But “their” is much more than just a word that shows possession, and that’s when an author can get into a real mess. “Their” is the possessive pronoun form of “they” and it can cause all kinds of issues with the pronoun/antecedent agreement in your sentences. And what’s more, these errors are often a part of everyday speech.
What’s an antecedent you ask? Well, simply put an antecedent is the word a pronoun references or replaces in a sentence.
Sally (singular antecedent) washes her (singular pronoun) hair every night.
The men (plural antecedent) jumped up and down and waved their (plural pronoun) hands, hoping to catch the attention of their (plural pronoun) friends.
Singular antecedents should be represented by singular pronouns and plural antecedents should be represented by plural pronouns. When the forms are mixed, problems arise.
So here’s where the fun begins. “Their” can also be used to indicate “his or her” when used with a non-gender specific indefinite singular antecedent. Why’s this an issue? Well, lets look at this sentence:
Everyone wants their day in the sun.
While Merriam-Webster notes this usage as valid, grammatically speaking, it’s a huge no-no. “Everyone” is a singular indefinite antecedent and “their” is a plural pronoun. This combination creates a lack of agreement. This sentence would be better rendered:
Everyone wants his or her day in the sun.
But doesn’t that sound clunky?
This is one of those cases where grammatically correct and common usage differ. There is a long (very long) history of “their” being used with non-gender specific indefinite antecedents in both casual and formal contexts. Because of this, some sources will allow the use of the plural pronoun “their” instead of the singular pronoun combination “his or her.”
I feel the decision whether to use this construction or not is best left to the author. Personally, I prefer to go with the exception rule and use “their,” but I may be in the grammatical minority on that one!
Is using “their” in this manner a valid construction? Yes. Is it grammatically correct? Well, that one is still up for (contentious) discussion.
The word “they’re” is very simple and straight forward, unlike its counterparts. “They’re” is a contraction. It is a combination between the pronoun “they” and the verb “are”. You should use it when you want to informally say “they are”.
They’re living right next door to their parents!
They’re the nicest couple I’ve ever met.
Tip: If you want to make sure that you are using contractions correctly, it helps to get into the habit of reading contractions as two words (e.g. “It is” when you see “it’s”.)
This habit can help you catch tense errors involving contractions made up of “have”, “is”, “does”, “are”, “has”, and “will”. And it can help you catch embarrassing errors involving contraction “it’s” and the possessive pronoun “its”.
So here’s the simple break down. If you want to refer to a place, area or point, literal or figurative, use “there”. If you want to show possessiveness, use “their”. And if you want to use the contraction for “they are” use “they’re.” Okay, now it’s time for you to get out there and use “there”, “their”, and “they’re” like a pro!
Go write something. 🙂