They’re, Their, or There???

Grammar Tutorial

They're, Their, or There???


Often times, it can be difficult to know which form of the word is appropriate in a given context. This demonstration will hopefully help to eliminate some of the confusion.

Sample Problem

For the third time this week, Matt’s roommates have unplugged his alarm clock, causing him to oversleep. When he’s behind schedule, he usually arrives late to work. He doesn’t know for sure, but he suspects _________ doing this on purpose, as payback for the pranks he pulled last week.


One great aspect of literature is that it is chock-full of context clues, or hints about what is going on, in order to help you arrive at a solution. In the case of They’re vs. Their vs. There, only one step is needed: Identify the context (situation/surrounding) in which the action is taking place. This is the CENTER of ATTENTION. (HINT: IT’S ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS BASED ON A NOUN. PICK OUT ALL OF THE NOUNS FROM THE EXAMPLE)

Where does the text seem to focus the most emphasis? Who/what has the most responsibility in the situation? Where is most of the action or tension coming from? It will either be caused by People, Ownership, or Objects. Once you’ve identified the person, source of ownership, or the place of action, the answer will pop out in front of you!

Is the action/description involving multiple persons? Does it mention whose got possession or ownership? Is it pointing to a specific place or location?

– “They’re” is used to reference multiple people. (i.e. They’re going to the concert.)
– “Their” is used to reference ownership. (i.e. Their concert tickets are on the table.)
– “There” is used to reference physical objects. (i.e. There were two tickets here this morning!”

In Matt’s example, we want to pick out the center of attention, or primary source of conflict. Which do you think it is? As I mention earlier, the answer will always be one of the nouns in a given text. Let’s jot down all of the nouns from the scenario:

– Matt
– Roommates
– Alarm clock
– Work

Matt doesn’t appear to be the source of the conflict. He’s certainly on the receiving end, but he isn’t the cause, so let’s rule him out.

His roommates seem to have a lot to do with his alarm clock going out, but what about the other nouns? Let’s come back to the roommates later.

One could argue that the alarm clock itself is the problem. After all, it is making Matt late for work. The reason we aren’t blaming the alarm clock is because, on it’s own it didn’t do anything. We’ll cross this out, too.

Work seems to be the last option we have to consider. In this case, the work is not a very strong source of conflict. It happens to be a “bystander” of sorts, in that the workplace is affected by Matt’s tardiness. However, the workplace itself didn’t initiate any tension.

It seems we’re left with Matt’s roommates, who shamelessly unplugged the alarm clock. This is the first sign of real tension in the example, an indicator that we should focus on them.

Since the center of attention isn’t an object (the alarm clock), or a place (work), and since poor Matt certainly didn’t do anything, the only realistic option we’re left with is the “multiple persons” match, or “they’re”.

“…he suspects they’re doing this on purpose…”

All of this analyzing of people, places, and things may seem like overkill at first, but it is the most important step in choosing which form of the word to use. Once you’ve practiced a few times, it becomes easier and quicker to identify the center of attention, and pick the correct wording.

About The Author

Writing Unblocked
I love writing! Essays, poetry/prose, songwriting, etc. can be fun and invigorating if you can step into the shoes of the narrator, and make the journey your own. Hopefully, I can work with you to begin to see writing in a different light, and help make it interesting and exciting, instead of a ...
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