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Know your grammar - their there they’re


Are you making basic errors in your writing? Perfect your prose with advice from the WM experts

It’s an elementary mistake but one that can strike all of us if we’re not paying attention. What’s the difference between there, their and they’re? And which one should you use when? Each one actually has a very specific usage, so it’s just a matter of distinguishing the meaning clearly to establish which is correct.

THERE – Although it technically serves various grammatical functions, THERE is actually simple to understand, as it always indicates roughly the same concept: the location or presence of a thing or things: eg “There it is.”/“There they are." or “There is…”/“There are…”

THEIR – Is even simpler. It only means one thing: possession by multiple people*; something they own. It will nearly always be followed by a noun (a thing). “This is their house.”

THEY’RE – Simpler still, THEY'RE can only be used as a shortened form of “They are...”

So here’s the rule to follow if you’re unsure whether you’ve picked the right one in some of your writing.
• If you can extend it to “They are”, it’s They’re.
• If it’s about some people having a thing, it’s Their.
• If it’s anything else, it’s There.

If your problem is a matter of remembering the spellings, note that in these instances the apostrophe is only indicating shortened phrases, and perhaps the similarity between THERE and the other terms of location/presence: WHERE and HERE.

One more thing!
There is, of course, a small further complication with THEIRS and THERE’S.
THEIRS – is used only to indicate ownership of a thing that has been previously mentioned. e.g. “Whose books are these?” "Theirs.” or “Those books are theirs.” (Note that if the item were mentioned again, it would be the normal possessive, “Those are THEIR books.”) There is no apostrophe here, as with OURS, HERS or YOURS.
THERE’S – can only be a contraction of “There is...”

Although these two are even easier to separate, you can still use the same approach.
• Can your problem word be extended to “There is”? If so, it’s There's, using the apostrophe to fill in for the missing letter.
• The only other option is that it’s indicating possession, and should be Theirs.

*We'll consider use of they and their to apply to individual people in a future post.


Now try these quick examples to check you understand which option to use in each sentence, and scroll down to see the answers

  1. _____ is a problem with this sentence.
  2. _____ a slightly different problem with this sentence.
  3. _____ going over _____.
  4. The problem is _____.
  5. The good writers are _____.
  6. _____ good writers.
  7. _____ writing is good.
  8. Is this _____ writing?
  9. Is this writing _____?
  10. _____ _____, in _____ house.

Scroll down to see the answers



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  1. THERE is a problem with this sentence.
  2. THERE'S a slightly different problem with this sentence.
  3. THEY’RE going over THERE.
  4. The problem is THERE / THEIRS (Trick question, two possible correct answers depending on context, either “That’s the problem.” or “It’s not my problem to solve…”)
  5. The good writers are THERE.
  6. THEY’RE good writers.
  7. THEIR writing is good.
  8. Is this THEIR writing?
  9. Is this writing THEIRS?
  10. THEY'RE THERE, in THEIR house.

How did you do? Good to go or could do better? Keep checking back for more exercises and tips from the Writing Magazine grammar gurus

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