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English Lesson 1: Correct Use of Their, There, and They’re

March 15th, 2008

their-there-grammar-error.jpgThis 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:

  1. Humans were forced to develop their intelligence so as not to be destroyed by their stupidity. - Matthijs van Boxsel
  2. 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”:

  1. Tell Bush to go over there and fight for oil. - Thomas Wilson
  2. 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:

  1. There is no dog! - Anonymous Atheist Dyslexic
  2. 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”.

  1. They’re not really that stupid, or misinformed, or delusional. - user HP from Scienceblogs.com
  2. 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.


15 Responses to “English Lesson 1: Correct Use of Their, There, and They’re”

  1. comment number 1 by: Caren

    Some people just will never understand this stuff. It’s because schools are dropping sentence diagrams from their curricula.

    We need to make a petition called “bring sentence diagrams back”..but no one’d listen.

  2. comment number 2 by: Walk Through Money Online Journal

    ouch!! I know I am one of those who have a lot of imperfection when it comes to english grammar. Aside from the fact that I am always in a hurry to finish the article because my time is limited, I am not a genuine writter. Just a frustrated one. But I always try my best. Thanks for this informative post

  3. comment number 3 by: Barbara Doduk

    It never ceases to amaze me how often people use the wrong spelling of common words like there and their. I think our education system is a failure.

    Thanks for finding me on Entrecard. I am happy to advertise your link on my blog.

    Cheers!

  4. comment number 4 by: Zero and Up

    Nice post! There are some bloggers who I’ve seen misspell words like those even in the title of their blog; they could really benefit from reading over a post like this :)

  5. comment number 5 by: arnold

    A post like this is great for me, as English is only my second language. It is always nice to have a place to go to sharpen up on those language skills every now and then. This is one of the reasons I decided to start blogging in English, to improve my usage of the language. It seems to be working as things are a bit easier these days. Please keep these articles coming.

  6. comment number 6 by: arnold

    Oops, I commented and then I tried to correct a spelling mistake. You can see the end result of this attempt for yourself. Just in case you cannot save my original comment all I wanted to say is that you should please keep posting this kind of article. Posts like this are very handy for those of us whose first language is not English. Thanks.

  7. comment number 7 by: Karlonia

    @Caren:

    Yes, the lack of education on sentence diagrams is certainly part of the problem. Another major factor that I have noticed is the whole apathy phenomenon. Many people, especially the ones who are sending emails and posting on various Internet forums, simply do not care much about English grammar or proper usage. They will openly state that grammar is not important and will even become offended if someone tries to correct a mistake. Sadly many of them never seem to realize why their sites or posts are not taken as seriously as they would like.

    @Walk:

    I concur; however, it is still a good idea to proofread posts before actually releasing them for publication. Alternatively, you can always edit your own posts and correct any errors that you find afterward, which is one of the advantages of having a blog. With traditional print publications, one cannot go back and correct errors after books or magazines have already been put into circulation. But with a blog or other type of website, making corrections is relatively easy, and anyone who visits your site after the editing is done may never realize that any errors ever existed.

    @Barbara:

    Yes, the their vs. there confusion seems to be one of the most common sources of errors. I have even seen program owners continue to mix up these two spellings and usages for years without ever realizing that they were using the words incorrectly.

    As for the educational system, I remember a relevant quote by Joseph Sobran:

    “In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college.”

    In other words, while the system may not be a complete failure for everyone, the overall standards in certain areas seem to have declined somewhat.

    @Zero and Up:

    Yes, that is the general idea. Whether not other bloggers will read educational articles and learn anything from them may be another matter, however. Earlier today I saw something similar to what you mentioned - an obvious typo in the title of the most recent article on another blog. I am still debating whether or not I should inform the site owner(s) about this. Perhaps I should just let them stew in their own ignorance.

    @Arnold:

    The text of your comment looks good - any edits that you made seem to have gone through OK. A few months ago I installed a plugin that is supposed to allow people to edit comments after posting. After attempting to edit some of my own comments I have occasionally noticed strange error messages after pressing “Submit”. If this happens, you can simply refresh the page and see the edited version. I’m not sure why the error messages are appearing in the first place, but the edits always seem to work anyway, so I have not messed around with trying to change anything at this point. Eventually I will probably find another plugin that performs the same function but works better with this theme.

    Meanwhile, I am glad that my English usage posts can help you with your understanding of the language. I know that many of my visitors come from outside of the usual English speaking countries, so this kind of information can be beneficial to them. Interestingly, I have noticed that many Europeans, who are learning English as a second language after German, French, etc. seem to write in English better than many Americans do. Therefore, it appears that English lessons are sorely needed for many native English speakers in addition to addressing the challenges of learning English as a second (or third, etc.) language.

  8. comment number 8 by: Laura

    Holy crap does this bother me. The use of they’re their there, here hear (uhh yes, I know people that confuse the two [too]). I’m not talking about people who are learning English as a second language, but people born and raised here. Real products of the education system. People who screw it up continually, not just a random mistake that the grammar checking program didn’t catch. We’ve all inserted incorrect words from time to time, without proof reading carefully enough. Misuse of simple words like these, drives me crazy!

  9. comment number 9 by: Debbie

    Here here! or is that, Hear, hear! lol. It drives me crazy this misuse of words also. The most annoying mistake in common use today is writing “could of” for could have” and ‘yous’ for you….or the other great one “and he was like: “What did you do that for?” and I was like: “Because I felt like it!” What the hell does the word ‘like’ mean here? I can’t stand it. It really peeves me that children are not taught Grammar or spelling for that matter at school today. How can one get to Year 12 in school (that’s the final year in Australia) and still not know the difference between two, to and too or their, there and they’re, and worse: write ‘could of’ or ’should of’ instead of ‘could have’ and ’should have’. Where did they learn this? I think both parents and the school system are to blame. Schools and parents are meant to partners in childrens’ education. Nobody seems to be doing it. We don’t believe in correction anymore. Why? Because we cannot hurt or upset the child! What crap! Thanks so much for this. I am a tutoring a Lebanese student in English and this was extremely helpful as I explained the difference in my own way but wanted an expert’s explanation….so this was very helpful. After all that, I am by no means infallible, so please excuse any grammatical errors. Cheers

  10. comment number 10 by: nike jordan

    How can one get to Year 12 in school (that’s the final year in Australia) and still not know the difference between two, to and too or their, there and they’re, and worse: write ‘could of’ or ’should of’ instead of ‘could have’ and ’should have’. Where did they learn this? I think both parents and the school

  11. comment number 11 by: Debbie

    what are you saying nike jordan. You posted part of what I said, but nothing further.???

  12. comment number 12 by: Debbie

    something went wrong I gather. Yes?

  13. comment number 13 by: Karlonia

    @Debbie:

    The “nike jordan” comment above was probably a spammy attempt to procure a backlink from this site. The commenter had originally placed a link in the Website field, but I removed it shortly after it was posted.

    This is a common tactic used by comment spammers — instead of actually reading the article and writing a relevant comment, they will copy and paste a few lines from someone else’s comment (or sometimes from the original article) to make it look like they are halfway intelligent and save themselves the effort of actually having to write anything. Their real purpose in doing this is to acquire backlinks for SEO purposes while making their comment look legitimate enough to slip it past the webmaster and avoid having the link deleted.

    However, I happen to be proficient in SEO methods of website promotion, so our intrepid keyword-named commenter was unable to fool this particular webmaster. :)

  14. comment number 14 by: Debbie

    Oh, interesting! Thank you for explaining.

  15. comment number 15 by: Scot Manaher

    Thanks for the grammar tips. I had a quick question and that being the proper use of ‘-’ and ‘–’? Sometimes I can see were it is a obvious choice to use the single slash but, the double slash I’m not so sure of.

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