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There, their, or they’re? Whose [who’s??] spelling needs a quick overhaul?

– we might not bandy it around much in our daily conversation (well, you might, but I certainly don’t), but it usually ranks fairly highly in Oxford’s search monitor surveys. It’s one of those very rare and curious-sounding long words that entertain and amuse us – so much so that it came 38th in our most looked-up words of 2011. Other terms that feature strongly in these surveys are the more common nouns and verbs which people check because they find them tricky to spell, such as commitment (how many m’s and t’s?) and fulfil (one ‘l’ in the middle or two?).

However, 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:

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.

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….

Who’s still with me?

As there are two options in the ‘who’s versus whose’ set rather than three, you’ve got more chance of choosing the right spelling. Nonetheless, mixing these two up is still a common error:

X There’s no one whose going to believe in your movie more than you.

It was not well received by parents like Anne, who’s son is just getting ready to start school.

Who’s is another contraction. It’s formed from the pronoun who plus is (the third person singular of the verb ‘to be’), or has (the third person singular of the verb ‘to have’). The apostrophe stands for the omitted ‘i’ of ‘is’ or the ‘ha’ of ‘has’:

√  I’m the one who’s going to be held responsible.                                                  [short for ‘who is’]

√  Paul’s a student who’s been in Canada on a student visa since 2009.        [short for ‘who has’]

Whose is a possessive determiner and pronoun which means ‘belonging to whom’:

√  87 % of the respondents are supportive of fines for parents whose children engage in antisocial behaviour.

√  Whose turn is it to wash up?

You’re nearly there…

Again, although there are just two options when it comes to your or you’re, it’s not hard to find hundreds of mistakes on the OEC, including the following:

X You wanted sumptuous and sumptuous is what your going to get.

You’re last name is Major Darcy?

Just as with the previous sets, the key to getting it right is being able to distinguish between the meanings of the words and to make sure they make sense with the rest of the sentence.

You’re is a contraction and is short for the two words ‘you are’. The apostrophe stands for the omitted ‘a’ of ‘are’:

√  You’re not in Philly any more, you’re in Detroit. 

 √  Whatever the reason, you’re in big trouble now.

is a possessive determiner and pronoun which means ‘belonging to you’:

√  What’s your name?

√  You can feel on top of the world by setting your own goal and going for it.

Have you been paying attention?

Here’s hoping that the above has helped you to get to grips with these common and very confusable word sets. Just for a little light relief, here’s an appallingly spelled limerick: with your newly honed skills, see how many mistakes you can spot!

Their waz a yung boy caled Chad
Who’s spelin waz dredfuly bad.
He cumposed this vers
(Your rite, it get’s werse!)
And drove his teechers and pairunts qwite mad.