One of the most difficult parts about writing in English is dealing with homophones–words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. You’d don’t need to know how to spell these words when you’re speaking to someone, but when it comes to writing knowing which word is which can make all the difference between looking like a seasoned professional and a total novice.
Of all the homophones in English, “Their,” “They’re,” and “There” are easily among the most troublesome. These words don’t just sound similar, they are constantly used, difficult to substitute for other words you may be better at spelling and, to top it all off, there are three of them!
Fortunately, you can use some handy tricks to identify which word is which, and remember when to use them.
“They’re” and “their” are related in that both come from the word “they.” Of the three words, you’ll likely find “they’re” the easiest to figure out; all you really have to do is look at the apostrophe in the middle of the word to realize it is a contraction–a combination of two other words.
In this particular case, “they” and “are” have been stitched together to create one word which means the same thing, “they are.” All we’ve really done is replaced the “a” with an apostrophe and smushed the words together to save time. Just remember that little piece of punctuation and you’ll realize that “they’re” is the word you’re looking for when describing what a group of people (which you are not a part of) is doing.
Here are a few examples to help:
- They’re going to the beach.
- They’re getting married next week.
- They’re running really far.
- They’re marching down the field!
If you can replace the word with “they are” and the sentence still makes sense, you want to use “they’re.”
“Their” is the other word that comes from “they.” You’ll notice that there is no apostrophe in this one, and that’s because it is not a combination of two other words. “Their” is the possessive form of “they,” and it’s used to show that a group of people have ownership over something.
Just like “my” shows something belongs to you and “your” indicates something belongs to the person you are speaking to, “their” shows that something belongs to a group of people to whom you are not speaking.
Let’s try it out:
- That is their favorite song.
- Their car is very fast.
- Their house was quite lovely.
- Their dog is very friendly.
If you can replace the word with “your” and still have a sentence that makes sense, you’ll want to use “their.”
“There” is the odd man out here. It has nothing to do with the word “they,” but it does come with its own handy little root to help you remember when to use it. Contained within the word is “here,” and both words are used to talk about places. “Here” is for talking about the place where you are right now, and “there” is for any place where you are not. Conveniently enough, “here” is also in another place word, “where,” so if you see “here” in it then that’s the “there” you want to use when talking about places.
One more time, let’s practice:
- There are many stars in space.
- There are lots of choices at the restaurant.
- The movie theater is across the street from there.
- Let’s not go there, it is a silly place.
- There will be more time for this later.
- There is no time like the present.
The last thing to remember here is that “there” can come before a physical place like a store or a planet, or it can indicate a place in time. If the next word is “is” or one of its other tenses (“was,” “are,” or “be”), you’ll want to use “there” for that too. Do that, and there will be nothing wrong with your use of “there!”
Don’t feel bad if you’re having trouble writing in English. There are many people who struggle with their writing, and they’re asking the same questions you are.