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.

The Many Moods of “Alarming”

So you’ll all be doubtless relieved to know that I have cheerfully settled in Seattle and immediately returned to my old tricks. Observe this gem brought to you by Seattle City Light:

Something’s alarming right enough… but I think it’s actually my linguistics sense.

Now, as both a linguist and native speaker of American English, I find this command troubling. Not because I have a problem with civic-minded individuals alerting the power company to potentially dangerous problems, but because it’s ambiguous. I’ve written about ambiguity in language before, but it’s something that I revisit often and it’s a complex enough subject that you can easily spend an entire lifetime studying it, let alone more than one blog post.

Let’s examine why this sign is ambiguous a little more closely.

First, there’s (what I would consider) a non-standard usage of the word “alarming”.  I tend to imagine something that is “alarming” to be capable of putting me in a state of alarm, rather than currently expressing alarm. Or, as the OED puts it:

“Disturbing or exciting with the apprehension of danger.”

Yeah, that’s right, “alarming” is one of the few words that the OED only has one definition for. Let’s put that aside for the moment, though, and assume that there’s a linguistically-creative sign maker working for Seattle City Light who has coined a neologism based on parallels with words like “understanding” or “revolving”. The real crux of the matter is that the command is not a sentence, and has just too many gaps where the reader has to fill in information.

These are just a couple of the possible interpretations I came up for the sign:

  • If [the alarm is] alarming (in the sense of performing the action which alarms traditionally do, such as whooping and revolving) [then] call.
  • If [you are] alarming [other people, then] call.
  • If [the alarm is] alarming [you, regardless of whether or not it’s currently flashing or making noise then] call.

Now, English syntax is a pretty resilient beast and can put up with a certain amount of words  left out. The fancy linguistics term for this is “ellipsis“, just like the punctuation mark. (This one: …) Words have to be left out of of certain places in certain ways,  though. Like you don’t have to say “you” every time you tell someone to do something. “Don’t sit there!” is perfectly acceptable as a sentence, and if someone told  you that you’d have no problem figuring out that they were telling you not to sit on their cat. Like everything else in language, though, there are rules and by breaking them you run the risk of failing to communicate what you’re trying to… just like this sign.

Fun with ambiguity!

Ambiguity is fun. For example, yesterday my friends and I were talking about my uncle, who repairs robots.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: Yeah, he’s a robot repair man. It’s a pretty good job.

Friend 1: How does one become a robot repair man?

Friend 2: Yeah, how did he become a robot?

Oh, clearly you meant a robotic man who repairs things, not a man who repairs robots.
Now, because I’m not a normal person, I jotted down a note of this interesting ambiguity. You’ve probably noticed lots of instances like this, where a word can be interpreted in more than one way. But did you ever wonder about ambiguity in language? (A little note here: There is ambiguity on the word level and ambiguity on the sentence level. I’m talking about ambiguious words here, though I might come back and do phrases later on.)

Think about it this way: language’s primary  purpose is to assist in communication. You would think that anything that got in the way of that purpose would be weeded out. I mean, yeah, languages evolve, but they evolve with conscious input from humans, so you’d think that we’d try to cut down on things that make communication harder. I mean, if you were designing a human, would you include the appendix? Ok, maybe you would. But my point is, ambiguity isn’t really helpful in communication. So why do we continue to use it?

Funnily enough, I’m not the first person to ask this question; it’s one that’s troubled linguistics for a while. And there was a theory proposed in a  recent article that I find particularly interesting. The authors argued that words that have more than one meaning (like how chips can be delicious and ruin your computer, or taste terrible and make your computer run) are generally words that are really easy to say.

You can think of different words as having different shapes, and that you have to trace these shapes to say the word. A word that’s really easy to say, like mom, would be a circle. A word that’s harder to say, like Cryptonomicon, is going to be more like five-pointed star. (A word that’s impossible to say, like lpdkn, would be like trying to draw a scale model of Mount Fuji in two dimensions: you can kind of get the general idea across, but you can’t produce it fully because it violates the rules of physics. Metaphorically.) When you’re just talking to friends, you want to use as many circles as possible. Because of that pressure, you’re going to use circles to represent tires and oranges and the sun, and trust that your friends can use context clues to figure out that you didn’t have tire juice for breakfast.

I tend to like this argument, because I’m of the opinion that laziness is one of the driving factors in language–I’m not so sure of another argument that they make, which is that the primary purpose of language is not  communication, but basically to organize our thoughts, but more on that later. The main point is that ambiguity is an essential part of language and will remain so for the foreseeable future.