We recently started a series, ‘Commonly Confused Words’. This series aims to explain the difference between a few of the most misused or misunderstood words in academic writing.
In addition to providing definitions and examples, we will share tricks for remembering the difference between these words. You can follow this link to find our previous article, ‘Commonly Confused Words: “Practice” and “Practice”’.
For my definitions, I use the Macquarie Dictionary: the authority on Australian English spelling.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘their’ as an adjective that indicates possession. It is a plural possessive pronoun, but is also often used in the singular instead of ‘his’ or ‘her’ to avoid these gender-specific pronouns when writing generally. For example, ‘Someone left their coat in the auditorium’.
To check that you have used ‘their’ correctly, you should be able to substitute ‘their’ for another possessive term such as ‘his’, ‘her’ or ‘our’.
‘They’re’ is a contraction of ‘they are’. You can check that you have used ‘they’re’ correctly by substituting it for ‘they are’. In the example, ‘They’re waiting for the train’, you could substitute ‘they’re’ for ‘they are’ and the sentence retains its meaning.
In the following example, ‘they’re’ is used incorrectly. We know this because when ‘they’re’ is substituted with ‘they are’ the sentence does not make sense: ‘We are waiting over they’re’.
Finally, ‘there’ is an adverb, adjective, pronoun or interjection, depending on its context.
When it has used as an adverb, ‘there’ means ‘in or at that place’ and directs our attention to a location or a particular matter. For example, ‘Let’s go over there’ or ‘If you look there you will find the answer’.
Similarly, ‘there’ could also be used as a pronoun for ‘that place’. For example, ‘You’re going to Port Douglas tomorrow. We will meet you there’.
We do not often use ‘there’ as an adjective because it is too colloquial in written contexts. The Macquarie Dictionary gives the example of ‘that there man’. This is an example of syntax (word order) that is not common in usage these days. Instead, we would reverse the word order and state ‘that man there’.
‘There’ can also be used as a colloquial interjection: ‘There! You see, I was right all along’. The Macquarie Dictionary also gives the example, ‘There, there, don’t cry’, as another example of ‘there’ used as an interjection.
To ensure you have used it correctly, ask yourself if you are trying to direct your reader’s attention to a place or a particular matter (this is the most common use of ‘there’). Additionally, if the sentence does not work with the possessive ‘their’ or the contraction ‘they’re’, it is likely you mean ‘there’.
There! We hope you feel more confident about your usage of ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’. They are easy to get the hang of once you understand their purpose in a sentence.