The difference between there, their and they’re

It’s easy to mix up similar words in English. There are so many words that sound similar but are spelt differently. The words there, their and they’re fall into this category. These three words might not sound identical in all varieties and dialects of English, but they sound similar enough to cause confusion. So what’s the difference?

There

There is used to give location (1) or when the subject is abstract (2).

  1. The fridge is over there.
  2. There are no elephants in the room.

The second type of there is similar to it in sentences like (3).

  1. It is raining.

In (2) and (3), there is no real subject, unless you consider there and it to be the general state of affairs (linguists disagree about the analyses of there and it in these cases).

Their

Their is a pronoun. It is the third person plural (3pl) possessive pronoun, so it is used to show that something belongs to multiple people. It corresponds with they (subject), them (object), theirs (possessive) and themselves (reflexive). See examples (4) to (8).

  1. ‘It is not your ball, it is their ball,’ said the teacher.
  2. They enjoyed playing football.
  3. Dr Patel awarded them each a prize.
  4. ‘It is not yours, it is theirs,’ said the teacher.
  5. The team members awarded themselves a prize.

This family of they, them, theirs pronouns are also epicene pronouns, used when there is no gender distinction: it can refer to a person whose gender is unknown (9) or to refer to a person who doesn’t identify with male or female gender (10).

  1. Bill said his cousin is visiting, but I don’t know when they will arrive.
  2. Sam put on their new hat and looked in the mirror.

Notice that the meaning of they in (9) and their in (10) is singular, but the pronoun is still a plural form. This means that there is a mismatch between the semantic meaning (singular) and the grammatical meaning (plural). What fun!

Can you think of any other mismatches between semantic meaning and grammatical meaning? (Click/tap for an example.)
Words like team, company and committee are used with a 3sg verb or a 3pl verb depending on whether they refer to the whole group as a single unit (The committee meets on Mondays.) or to all the people in the group collectively (The committee meet on Mondays).

Which do you prefer and why?

They’re

They’re combines the 3pl pronoun they (5) with the verb are, which is the 3pl present tense form of the verb be. The combined form is called a contraction. In example (11), the words are written out in full. In (12), they are contracted to give they’re.

  1. They are playing with a ball.
  2. They’re playing with a ball.

Notice that (12) has an apostrophe (‘) after they and before re. This is to indicate that the letter a has been omitted from the contraction. Letters must be missed out from a contraction otherwise you just have two words written together with no space between them (13), which the spellchecker, if you have one, will complain about!

  1. Theyare playing with a ball.

Even though epicene they is used to represent 3sg when referring to one person of unknown or non-binary gender, it is also used with he 3pl form of the verb be (14). Notice how weird it sounds when you read example (15)!

  1. ✔︎ Sam said they are wearing their new hat tomorrow.
  2. ✘ Sam said they is wearing their new hat tomorrow.

As we noted above, the epicene case gives rise to a mismatch between the semantics and the grammar: they is semantically singular, but grammatically plural. This mismatch means that we have to use the plural form of the verb, otherwise the subject and verb won’t agree, resulting in an odd sentence like (15).

How to remember which is which

Does it make sense to say they are in your sentence? If yes, then the correct form is they’re. For example, if we write the sentence in (16), have we written it correctly? If we change there to they are (17), we realise that we have got the wrong word and we need to change it to they’re.

  1. There having chips for lunch.
  2. ➜ ✔︎ They are having chips for lunch.
  3. ✔︎ They’re having chips for lunch.

If you can swap sentence (16) round to produce a new sentence containing theirs (17) instead, then you need their. For example, if we write sentence (19), have we got it right? If we try the test above (17), we see that the resulting sentence (20) does not make sense. If we try changing the sentence around so that we have a sentence containing theirs, a possessive pronoun used without a following noun – compare (4) and (7) – instead of their plus the noun, we achieve sentence (21). This makes sense, so we know we must have the possessive pronoun; we can correct (19) to sentence (22).

  1. It is not there ball.
  2. ➜ ✘ It is not they are ball.
  3. ➜ ✔︎ The ball is not theirs.
  4. ✔︎ It is not their ball.

For the location sense of there, think of it as answering the question `Where?’ as in (23).

  1. — I saw a mouse!
    Where?
    There on the stair, right there!

The original lyrics to A Windmill in Amsterdam were written by Myles Rudge, with music by Ted Dicks.

Note that the spelling of where and there is almost identical, and they rhyme in most varieties of English:

— ‘Where?’

— ‘There!’

If the thing you’re talking about is abstract, then it’s there. Can you think of a way to remember it? If so, drop a comment in the box below – you could help someone else!

Test yourself

Can you tell if I’ve used the correct form of there, their or they’re in the sentences below? Remember to apply the tests above if you’re not sure. The answers are below – no peeking!

  1. Have they put their hat on?
  2. I have never been to Brazil. Have you been they’re?
  3. There were a lot of questions on the test.
  4. The railway station is over their.
  5. There eating apples to keep the doctor away.
  6. They were cheering on they’re team.
Click/tap for the answers
  1. ✔︎ their
  2. ✘ ➜ there
  3. ✔︎ there
  4. ✘ ➜ there
  5. ✘ ➜ they are
  6. ✘ ➜ their

How did you get on?

If you didn’t do so well, try reading through the examples again. Consider whether you’re talking about a place or something abstract (there), whether or not there is a thing that belongs to someone (their), or whether or not you’re talking about a group of people or things that are doing something (they’re). Keep trying: you’ll get there!

Now that you’re an expert on using the right form of there, their and they’re, you can go out and refer to people and places and all sorts (but not liquorice)!

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