The Writer’s Toolbox – How to Comfort an Editor

When You’re comforting an editor, the meme goes, tell her “There, their, they’re.”

True? Perhaps. Correct usage may not be the antidote for all editorial ills?That’s what caffeine is for?but using there, their, and they’re correctly can go a long way. This week’s Toolbox shows you how.

The word their is a possessive pronoun, which is much simpler than it sounds. A pronoun stands in for a noun. Possessive means there’s some sort of possession, ownership, or similar relationship going on. Whenever you’ve got a situation involving a possessive relationship, use their. If you can answer the question Whose?, use their.

Example A: We went over to their house. Whose house? Their house.

Example B: The students were disappointed with their grades. Whose grades? Their grades.

There is an adverb, which is a word that modifies, or describes or explains, a noun, adjective, verb, or (another) adverb. It often references location or answers the question Where?, though it also is used to make statements. It actually plays a lot of roles, but one thing it never, never does is show possession, ownership, or any similar relationship. Never! don’t use there to show possession. (Butterflies may die, and so might your editor.)

Example C: I want to go over there.

Example D: There are three chocolates left in the box.

Incorrect Example E: Tom and Jeff invited me over to there house. There’s a possessive relationship here?the house belongs to someone (Tom and Jeff). The correct word is their.

Corrected Example E: Tom and Jeff invited me over to their house.

they’re is a contraction, a combination word where the apostrophe indicates one or more missing letters. they’re always, always stands for they are or, in conversation, they were. It never shows possession or location. If You’re trying to say they are or they were, use they’re. If You’re unsure, try the full form; if they are doesn’t make sense, they’re is not the right word.

Example F: they’re going to put the house on the market. This example is correct, since it can also be written this way: They are going to put the house on the market.

Example G: He’s going to DJ they’re wedding. This example is incorrect. He’s going to DJ they are wedding makes no sense, so they’re is the wrong choice. (Whose wedding is it? There’s possession implied, so use their.)

A Challenge
Some sentences combine two or more of these words. If you remember and apply the rules above, though, you’ll find them easy to sort out.

Example H: they’re keeping an eye on how many of their students are going over there. Breaking it down: they’re keeping an eye is correct, since we can substitute They are. Their students is correct because there’s possession implied (Whose students? Their students). And there is used correctly as an adverb, here showing location.

Now It’s time for the challenge. These sentences are incorrect. Can you tackle them on your own?

I look over they’re and see that their there with their kids and there pets.

Their will come a time when their going to fight because their just not happy with there relationship.

Email me at if you can figure it out on your own. Honour system?no peeking! I’ll post the correct answers next week.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.

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