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There and they're, there and their - they're all hard to tell apart!

There, their, or they’re?

There are a handful of very ordinary, very frequently used words which cause no end of spelling problems to writers of English. They’re relatively rarely looked up in our online dictionary because people sometimes don’t realise that they’re misspelling them in the first place. Top amongst these are their, there, and they’re.

The fact that each word means something totally different but sounds the same as the other word or words in each set (they’re called homophones) often leads to people opting for the wrong spelling, especially if they’re not thinking carefully about what they’re writing. So the secret to getting them right depends on understanding what the words mean and when each should be used. If you know you’re prone to get these mixed up, here are some quick tips to help you avoid future mistakes.

Telling apart their, there, they’re

This trio of words can create much spelling bewilderment, as we can see from the following real examples, taken mainly from the Oxford English Corpus (OEC):

X We were their in good time, the plane was due to leave at 7.40 and we were in the airport at 5.15.

X They think there so good but there not.

They announced their going to have another meeting in two weeks.

They’re are big debates here in California about how to solve the problems of the deficit.

I’ll reveal the correct versions later (but why not see if you can get them right yourself first?). If you’re not sure, let’s take a look at the differences between the three words, which crop up in their parts of speech as well as their meanings.

There is an adverb: it mainly means ‘in, at, or to that place’:

√  Corfu looks like a nice place – I want to go there someday.

There can also be used to talk about the fact or existence of something:

√  There are some serious questions involved in this issue.

The confusion between there and their is very common: for instance, the OEC has 438 examples of ‘their was’ and 572 of ‘their is’. Both are plain wrong! This is because their is a possessive determiner which means ‘belonging to them’ (that is, the people or things you’ve just mentioned):

√  The couple cut short their holiday and immediately returned home.

  I passed four residents coming out of their apartment.

The third word in this set, they’re, is a contraction of two words. It’s short for the third person pronoun they plus are, the third person plural of the verb ‘to be’. The apostrophe shows that the ‘a’ of ‘are’ has been dropped

√   I love those guys, and they’re very happy for me.

So now we’ve got that straight, here are the correct versions of the examples that we looked at earlier:

√  We were there in good time, the plane was due to leave at 7.40….

√  They think they’re so good but they’re not.

√  They announced they’re going to have another meeting….

√   There are big debates here in California….

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.