Ah, the great grammar dilemma: “There,” “their,” and as a bonus, I’ll throw in “they’re.” What’s the difference between these terms? They may sound the same, but each word has a distinct meaning. Get ready to flashback to Schoolhouse Rock as I clarify the confusing world of homonyms and unpack the difference between “there” and “their.”
“Their” refers to someone’s possession or attribute—something that belongs to them. Like its cousins “his” and “her,” this “their” belongs in sentences like “Fido is their dog” and “Their happiness means everything to me.” A trick to remember this “their” is that it has the word “heir” inside of it—a ready-made clue that this “their” is all about possession and ownership.
Hot tip: This “their” doesn’t just refer to multiple people’s possessions anymore. For gender-non-conforming people, trans people, non-binary people, and more, “their” can be a helpful pronoun. If you don’t feel comfortable identifying as either male or female, “he” and “she” may not be appropriate pronouns.
Thankfully, these days the singular “their” is increasingly common, with Merriam Webster recently defining it as a single-person pronoun in their official dictionary. To all the people who refused to use the singular “they” and “their” because the words weren’t grammatically correct, problem solved!
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Like “their,” this “there” also includes a little clue. Nestled inside is the word “here,” hinting that this “there” is often about location. When someone says, “Look over there!”, this is the “there” that they’re using (sorry not sorry for the tongue twister).
However, this “there” is also a bit of a two-for-one deal. It’s doesn’t just refer to physical locations, but also abstract situations. From Shakespeare’s “Aye, there’s the rub” to the Friends theme song’s “I’ll be there for you,” this “there” can also refer to emotional states and point on a spectrum of opinion. When The Rembrandts sing that they’ll be “there” for you, they don’t mean a physical place but that they’ll be emotionally present. When Hamlet pauses and says, “there’s the rub,” he isn’t pointing to a discrete city, but to a point in his thought where his reasoning hits a snag.
“They’re” is the easiest to define. It’s a short-cut word that combines “they are” into a single contraction. Substitute the “a” for an apostrophe and “they’re” has just helped you save a millisecond of time.
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