This post is the first installment of my English usage guide, an ongoing weekly series of articles that are designed to educate readers in the proper use of the English language and raise awareness of the need for thorough proofreading. The first few lessons will deal with groups of homonyms, words that sound alike when pronounced but are spelled differently and have different meanings when they are used in written text. Homonyms can be tricky for students and webmasters who do not manually proofread their work before submission. Unless obvious typographical errors are made, incorrect usage among these words will not be detected by standard spell checking programs.
Some of the most common errors that I see being made on published web pages involve incorrect usage of the words their, there and they’re. For the remainder of this post, I will demonstrate examples of correct and incorrect usage of these three words so that you can hopefully learn how to use them correctly and avoid mistakes in your writing.
The word their is the possessive form of the pronoun they, and is used as an adjective to modify the noun that follows it. For example:
- Humans were forced to develop their intelligence so as not to be destroyed by their stupidity. - Matthijs van Boxsel
- Those who believe that they have nothing to learn from barbarians have resigned themselves to their ignorance. - Karl Erfurt
There, on the other hand, is an adverb that is used to indicate a place or location, as in the commonly used phrase “over there”:
- Tell Bush to go over there and fight for oil. - Thomas Wilson
- Unfortunately I live in Australia, so it’s very difficult to get over there. - Chantau Daffy
The word there can also be used in a general sense to indicate the existence or nonexistence of something, as in the following humorous quotes:
- There is no dog! - Anonymous Atheist Dyslexic
- I stayed awake for several hours last night wondering if there was really a dog. - Dyslexic Agnostic Insomniac
Meanwhile, they’re is simply a contraction of the two words “they are”.
- They’re not really that stupid, or misinformed, or delusional. - user HP from Scienceblogs.com
- Do people with normal intelligence know they’re ignorant? - question asked on Yahoo Answers
The most common usage errors seem to occur when people mix up their and there. They’re is misused also, but this seems to be less common. It is relatively easy to tell whether or not you are using it correctly by simply substituting the words “they are” in the sentence. Here are some examples of incorrect usage, followed by the corrected versions.
Incorrect: Those people are genuinely happy in there ignorance. - user “franznietzsche” from Physics.com forums
Correct: Those people are genuinely happy in their ignorance.
Incorrect: I wonder if there’s a legal doctrine of “misuse of a trademark” just as their is for “misuse of a copyright”. - user Thomas from Cisco.com blog
Correct: I wonder if there’s a legal doctrine of “misuse of a trademark” just as there is for “misuse of a copyright”.
Incorrect: Does this mean msnspace will hammer out an agreement with Ubuntu over they’re logo? - Macewan, Msdn.com blog
Correct: Does this mean MSN Spaces will hammer out an agreement with Ubuntu over their logo?
Incorrect: She is actually abusing you they’re is not doubt it my mind if all this is true! - Anna, Yahoo answers user
Correct: She is actually abusing you - there is no doubt in my mind if all of this is true!
Next week, unless enough of you want me to cover a different English usage topic, I am planning on dealing with the your vs. you’re vs. yore issue, followed by its vs. it’s, and then probably sight vs. site vs. cite. We have also had one request for coverage of “could of” vs. “could have” (and similar variants), so I will fit this one in as soon as I can after dealing with the most common errors involving homonyms.