There, their and they’re: linguistics style!

The most frustrating homophone triplet in English is there, their and they’re, which are all said [ðɛr]. They’re a pain, and one that I’ve found that even really smart adults struggle with. And, frankly, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they’re not usually taught in a very linguistically sophisticated way. Luckily for y’all, “linguistic sophistication” is my middle name*. And, like all good linguists I’ve got some tests to help you figure out which [ðɛr] you need.


If tests aren’t your style and you just want to play the odds, though, guess “their”, “there” and “they’re” in that order. According to Google’s n-gram viewer (click the chart to go play around with it) “their” is the most common [ðɛr] in writing, followed by “there” and then “they’re”.

  • There. So the confusing thing here is that there are really *two* there’s in English and they play really different roles.
    • Pleonastic there. So in English we really need subjects, even when we don’t. Some sentences like “It’s raining” and “There’s no more ice-cream” don’t actually need a subject to convey what we’re getting at. There’s no thing, “it”, up in the sky that is doing the raining like there’s a person throwing a ball in “They threw the ball”. We just stick it up in there to fill out our sentence.
      • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with “it”? If so, it’s probably “there”.
      • Test: If the sentence has “[ðɛr] was/were/is/are/will” it will almost always be “there”.
    • Locative there. So “locative” is just a fancy word for “relating to a place”. Are you talking about a place? If so, then you probably need “there”.
      • Test: Is [ðɛr] referring to a place? If so, it’s probably “there”.
  • Their. So people tend to use a semantic definition for this one; does it belong to someone? It’s way easier to figure it out with part of speech, though. “Their” is part of a pretty small class of words called “determiners”– you may also have heard  “articles”. One good way to test if a word belongs to the same part of speech as another is to replace it in the sentence. You know “snake” and “pudding” are both nouns because you say either “My snake fell off the shelf” or “My pudding fell off the shelf”. So all you have to do is swap it out with one of the other English Determiners and see if it works.
    • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with words like “my”, “our”, “the” or “some”? If so, it’s “their”.
  • They’re. This is probably the easiest one. They’re is a contraction of “they” and “are”. If you can uncontract them and the sentence still works, you’re golden.
    • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with “they are”? If so, it’s probably “they’re”.

Try out these tests next time you’re not sure which [ðɛr] is the right one and you should figure it out pretty quickly. Of course, there are some marginal cases (like when you’re talking about the words themselves) that may throw you off, but these guidelines should pull you through 99% of the time.

* Not actually my middle name.

Great Ideas in Linguistics: Consonants and Vowels

Consonants and vowels are one of the handful of linguistics terms that have managed to escape the cage of academic discourse to make their nest in the popular conciousness. Everyone knows what the difference between a vowel and a consonant is, right? Let’s check super quick. Pick the option below that best describes a vowel:

  • Easy! It’s A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y.
  • A speech sound produced without constriction of the vocal tract above the glottis.

Everyone got the second one, right? No? Huh, maybe we’re not  on the same page after all.

There’s two problems with the “andsometimesY” definition of vowels. The first is that it’s based on the alphabet and, as I’ve discussed before, English has a serious problem when it comes to mapping sounds onto letters in a predictable way. (It gives you the very false impression that English has six-ish vowels when it really has twice that many.) The second is that isn’t really a good way of modelling what a vowel actually is. If we got a new letter in the alphabet tomorrow, zborp, we’d have no principled way of determining whether it was a vowel or not.

Letter dice d6.JPG

Ah, a new letter is it? Time to get out the old vowelizing dice and re-roll.  “Letter dice d6”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But the linguistic definition captures some other useful qualities of vowels as well. Since vowels don’t have a sharp constriction, you get acoustic energy pretty much throughout the entire spectrum. Not all frequencies are created equal, however. In vowels, the shape of the vocal tract creates pockets of more concentrated acoustic energy. We call these “formants” and they’re so stable between repetitions of vowels that they can be used to identify which vowel it is. In fact, that’s what you’re using to distinguish “beat” from “bet” from “bit” when you hear them aloud. They’re also easy to measure, which means that speech technologies rely really heavily on them.

Another quality of vowels is that, since the whole vocal tract has to unkink itself (more or less) they tend to take a while to produce. And that same openness means that not much of the energy produced at the vocal folds is absorbed. In simple terms, this means that vowels tend to be longer and louder than other sounds, i.e. consonants. This creates a neat little one-two where vowels are both easier to produce and hear. As a result, languages tend to prefer to have quite a lot of vowels, and to tack consonants on to them. This tendency shakes out create a robust pattern across languages where you’ll get one or two consonants, then a vowel, then a couple consonants, then a vowel, etc. You’ve probably run across the term linguists use for those little vowel-nuggets: we call them syllables.

If you stick with the “andsometimesY” definition, though, you lose out on including those useful qualities. It may be easier to teach to five-year-olds, but it doesn’t really capture the essential vowelyness of vowels. Fortunately, the linguistics definition does.