Lee requested this classic lexical vexation, one that trips up the best of us from time to time. Thanks, Lee!
their adj. the possessive form of the pronoun they.
there 1. adv. a word used to designate a location that is at a distance, near or far, from the one using the word. 2. pronoun used to introduce the existence of something (ex. There is truth in what she says).
they’re a contraction of the words they and are .
Words in the Wild: They’re going to their cabin in the woods this weekend, and they’re hoping their nosy neighbours won’t be there.
This trio of homophones is just as vexing as the tricky its vs. it’s. You’ve probably noticed that we don’t need to constantly stop people in conversation to ask which of the above spellings they just spoke. That’s because the rest of their words give us all the clues we need to know which meaning was intended. So when we switch to the written word, it’s easy for a writer to choose the wrong one of these spellings. Even a seasoned grammarian who knows these spellings inside and out will mix these words up from time to time. And that’s okay…catching these sorts of oversights is exactly what proofreading is for, after all.
In writing as in speaking, we don’t really need the correct spelling of these words to make sense of what people have written. It’s only tradition and habit that require these different spellings at all. But now that we’ve grown used to the visual distinction between these words, it can confuse us when it’s gone. When a writer chooses the wrong spelling, it can, at least briefly, send readers down the garden path before they find their way to the intended meaning. Try to quickly read these incorrect uses of their, there, and they’re to see if you notice the extra work they require:
✗ It was their that I found the lost kitten.
✗ There’s is the brown sedan.
✗ There at odds with they’re upstairs neighbours these days.
It makes reading a lot easier on readers when we spell these words correctly (and we lose fewer points on grammar tests, too), so I hope this blog post helps you choose your theres, theirs, and they’res wisely.
Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.