Today’s post is obviously another installment in the Punctuation and Grammar category, which for the purposes of this blog, also includes word usage. This post happens to be about usage, namely, the use of a particular set of homonyms. A homonym is a word that sounds the same as another word. Homonyms are notoriously troublesome because although they sound alike, they’re spelled differently and also typically have very different meanings, which can potentially lead to embarrassing, humorous, or even disastrous results if you happen to use the wrong one.
My husband and I encountered just such a problem on our honeymoon in Paris. On our first day in the city, we had lunch at a café and ordered some crème brûlée for dessert. Since we’d planned to share the dessert, my husband was going to ask our waiter for two spoons, deux cuillères. However, my husband doesn’t know much French, and although he’d picked up a little from a former roommate of ours, he asked me for a pronunciation check first. Thankfully, he did, or he would’ve said something rather vulgar to our waiter. Luckily, our waiter had a sense of humor and shared a laugh with us over this near-mistake; he even joked with me later.
Since English, not French, is the language that I know best, I’m focusing on homonyms in the English language. One particularly problematic group is they’re/there/their. One of these words refers to a place, another is a possessive form indicating ownership, and the third is a contraction that indicates people performing an action. So which one is which?
I think the easiest one to remember in terms of definition is the contraction, they’re. The apostrophe tells you that it’s a contraction—two words squished together into a shortened form with some letters missing (the apostrophe itself is placed where the missing letters would be). The full form of they’re is they are, so this is the one that refers to people engaged in some action, as in “They are coming to visit.”
The word there is the one that refers to a place, i.e., where something is located. If you have difficulty remembering this one, it might be helpful to consider it alongside its sometime-companion, “here,” which is also a place. Here and there both end in “-ere,” and both answer the question of “where” something is located (note that “where” also ends in the same letters “-ere”). If you’re a Beatles fan, this is the one in their song, “Here, There, and Everywhere,” a song title made up entirely of place words.
I saved what I think may be the most confusing of the three homonyms for last because I can’t think of a trick to help you remember this one (if you’ve got one, please share in the comments). In any case, their is the one that is a possessive form, meaning it indicates ownership. Specifically, their (or its relative, theirs, which is the plural version) means “belonging to them.” So if you wish to convey ownership of a thing, such as “their shoes” or “their glasses” or “those papers are theirs,” then this is word you should use, not one of the other two.
Thankfully, any they’re/there/their confusion you might have isn’t likely to result in a horrendous outcome for you, but if you’re editing or proofing your own work, the tips I’ve listed here can help you make it a bit more polished. Write well, ink-slingers!