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English Language Usage: There, Their, They're!

Updated on December 1, 2016

There is a phone box, where people make their calls, and there is a letter box, where people post their letters. They're situated close together.

English telephone and letter boxes.
English telephone and letter boxes. | Source

Problems?

There are three similar-sounding little English words, with which writers appear to have problems:

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'There'

'Their'

'They're'

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Note that they all sound the same and they all begin with the same three letters:

~ 'the...'.

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Corrections to Incorrect Sentences:

The first two require 'there':

~ Go and sit over there.

~ There is a train going over the bridge.

*

The others require 'their':

~ Where are their boots?

~ Their books are on the shelf.

They're

Let's look at the last one first.

No-one should really have any trouble with this word ~ or, rather, these words.

'They're' is a contraction. It is short for 'they are'.

Apostrophes replace letters ~ and this is a prime example.

Once one realises this, there should be no confusion.

One would not say:

Go and sit over they are.

They are is a train going over the bridge.

Where are they are boots?

They are books are on the shelf.

These sentences sound wrong because they are incorrect.

* * *

In use:

Any example can be chosen ~ though some sound better than others when abbreviated in this way.

They are going on holiday.

= They're going on holiday.

They are my relatives.

= They're my relatives.

They are very busy.

= They're very busy.

Here we be!

'They're' Etymology

'They' has been used since around the year 1200 AD. It is from Old Norse 'þeir' (originally a plural masculine form), which derives from Proto Germanic '*thai' and Proto Indo European '*to-'

'Are' is the plural form of the present indicative of the verb 'to be'. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, this comes from the Mercian 'earun' and / or the Northumbrian 'aron'.

Before the 17th century, 'be' or 'ben' was used. 'We be' can still sometimes be heard in the South-West of England.

Thanks to the Online Etymological Dictionary and the Oxford Online Dictionary!

(NB. 'þ' = 'th')

How to Remember: 'They're'

We have already noted that 'they're' is simply short for 'they are'.

If 'they are' fits sensibly within the sentence, then it can either be used in full, or abbreviated to 'they're'.

Note that, in the abbreviated form, the 'a' is removed and replaced with an apostrophe.

They're

There

'There' is an adverb that refers to place.

Where is the book? ~ There is is!

There is a cat on the mat.

Where shall I put the flowers? Here or there?

Look over there!

"There, there"

"There, there" is a strange little phrase. It is said in order to comfort someone. Apparently, it is a 19th century invention and probably comes from the idea that one shouldn't become upset over something that doesn't go right, because there will always be something else coming along soon.

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Another example of a 'there' exclamation:

There! I knew you could do it!

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There are a number of other little phrases, used regularly in English, containing the word 'there'.

Several can be found in the Oxford Online Dictionary.

Here is an example: You can't play with my toys! So there!


There Is and There Are

'There is' and 'there are' are phrases used to indicate the 'existence of' something.

These phrases, consisting of 'there' plus a form of the verb 'to be', tend to indicate a location ~ or a time.

Other tenses can be used, as well as the present:


~ There is a road up to the castle.

~ There’s a tree in the meadow.

~ There are ducks on the pond.

~ There was a car in the ditch.

~ There were clowns at the circus.

~ There will be a party on Saturday.

~ There will be guests at the party.

~ There may be fireworks at the festival.

~ There should be an adult in charge.


Et cetera.

'Th'

'There' Etymology

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, 'there' comes from the Old English word 'þær', which, in turn, came from Proto Germanic '*thær' and ultimatelyfrom Proto Indo European '*tar-'. all meant 'there', ie. 'in / at that place'.

Note that 'þ' was pronounced 'th'.

Thanks to the Online Etymological Dictionary and the Oxford Online Dictionary!

How to Remember: 'There'

It helps if one considers the spelling of other words referring to place ~ here; where.

Here

Where

There

'Here', 'where' and 'there' all contain the word 'here'.

They are all spelled according to the same pattern.

Here? There!

Their

'Their' relates to ownership. It is a possessive pronoun.

My books

Your books

His / her books

Our books

Your books

Their books

* * *

Thus, 'their' indicates that something belongs 'to them'.
Eg. They have lost their dogs.

More examples:

~ Look at their house.
Compare: Look at the girl's house.

~ Their children are well-behaved.
Compare: The couple's children are well-behaved.

*

A related word is 'theirs'.
Eg. Whose dog is that?
~ It belongs to them; it's theirs.

'Their' Etymology

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the use of 'their' dates from around 1200 AD.

Prior to that, the Old English 'hiera' was used. (In Old English, the plural form of 'he' (he), 'heo' (she) and 'hit' (it) was 'hi' or 'hie'.)

The terms 'þeir' and (its genitive form) 'þierra', were Old Norse words. The word 'þeir' actually meant 'they'. Remember that 'þ' was pronounced 'th'.

The Proto Germanic term from which it derived was '*thai' and the Proto Indo European was '*to-'.

[Since, etymologically, 'he' has evolved from a word meaning 'this, here', I have to wonder if 'their' may relate to 'that, there' ~ in which case there could be a link between 'there' and 'their'.]

Thanks to the Online Etymological Dictionary and the Oxford Online Dictionary!

How to Remember: 'Their'

Just remember that all three of these words begin with 'the' and that this 'ownership' one cannot be short for a two-word phrase 'they are'; nor can it be related to here and where.

So it's the other one ~ the one that ends with 'ir'.

Their

Etymology

Etymology is word history. It tells the story of the origins, evolution and development of words.

Has this helped?

Has this article helped you to understand how to spell and use 'their', 'there' and 'they're' ?

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Notes and Copyright

I hope that I have not made any mistakes and apologise for any errors that may be found within this article.

I have used the Online Etymological Dictionary and the Oxford Online Dictionary to help me with this article. More information and clarification may be found on those websites. My sincere thanks to them!

My own words are copyright Tricia Mason. All Rights Reserved.

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    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Trish, I think you covered every possible variation of the misuse of they, there, and their! Thanks! Now if we could get everyone to stop putting an inappropriate apostrophe in every word with an "s" on the end, my blood pressure wouldn't skyrocket every time I see an example of this stupidity!

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hello JamaGenee :)

      Thank you :)

      Ah yes, the greengrocer's apostrophe ~ definitely annoying! (I wrote an 'apostrphe' hub a while ago.)

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      I think I saw a notice for your apostrophe hub, but never got to it, so I'll head there now. ;D

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Super!

    • Tonipet profile image

      Tonette Fornillos 5 years ago from The City of Generals

      Very helpful lesson. A must-learn. Sometimes we also have to stop and learn the basics. Thank you Trish.

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Hiya Homey. No mistakes I could see, except the other usage of "There" Which is probably there if I read your excellent article more carefully.

      You sure come out all guns blazing, dear!

      Lousy day for the celebs.

      Bob x

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Tonette :)

      Thank you for the warm comments the the 'follow' :)

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hello Bob :)

      Thanks again!

      Which other 'there', I wonder.

      There were so many! I couldn't include them all :)

    • Brett.Tesol profile image

      Brett Caulton 5 years ago from Thailand

      Very well written and explained. Although I generally use these correctly, I do find that when I write quickly or text, sometimes the wrong spelling spills out lol,

      Shared, up and useful.

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Brett :)

      Thanks!

      Yes, when writing by hand, I usually have no problems with this, but I find that, when typing, the wrong word may sometimes appear. Strange :)

    • TIMETRAVELER2 profile image

      TIMETRAVELER2 5 years ago

      From one teacher to another...good job! This should help many who have problems with these homophones.

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi TIMETRAVELER :)

      Thank you!

      I do hope so :)

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 5 years ago from SW England

      Well explained! It's one I have to do again and again with my dyslexic students; I get them to make up their own mnemonics too - e.g. (th)eir (e)lephant (i)s (r)ed, putting the letters in brackets in a different colour. The etymology is interesting. Voted up and useful and thanks for the follow!

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Annart. :)

      Thanks for reading.

      My son had Dyslexia type problems, when he was younger, so I know what you mean :)

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      This is a valuable hub for many who confuse these homophones. You've really done your homework and included so much interesting history.

      Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Tillsontitan :)

      Thank you.

      I do hope that it will be of some use! :)

    • ChristyWrites profile image

      Christy Birmingham 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This problem continues! They're still doing it hehe :) Very informative read that I vote up and will share too.

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks for the very useful hub and it is well received.

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :) :)

      * * * *

      Thanks, Christy, for your very encouraging response! :)

      * * * *

      Thank you, whonunuwho. Pleased you found it useful!

      * * * *

    • profile image

      Kerry43 4 years ago

      Hi Trish, how are you? I have to be honest and say that I voted I didn't need help with this, but heaven only knows I always get confuzzled with effect & affect :/

      Excellent information, so thorough!

      Enjoy your evening:)

      Kerry

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 4 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hello Kerry :)

      Thanks for reading.

      Yes, I think that we all have those areas that we are unsure of. I don't really know when to choose between may and might.

    • profile image

      Kerry43 4 years ago

      Oh yes, Trish, I did get the wrist slap in school for that one. If I remember rightly, may will refer to something highly likely to happen, whereas might is only a possibility.

      Please let me know when you write the effect/affect hub. I will be sure to bookmark!

      Thanks again,

      Kerry:)

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 4 years ago from The English Midlands

      OK :)

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