Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Their/There and Its/It’s


I’ve been grading student papers for six years now, and I’ve seen just about everything.

Misspellings galore. Grammatically incorrect phrases. Sentences that don’t make a lick of sense.

But there are two errors in particular I see time and time again. Where it gets to the point I can’t point them out anymore, I’ve given up, I’m telling you! I give up!!!

But no, no, I don’t give up. If I can help just one student of mine learn the difference between their/there and its/it’s, I feel just a little bit better.

And it’s not only in student papers I see these errors. I saw it in the fiction of my friends all the time, especially when I was reading and responding to their stories for our creative writing workshops.

The truth is it doesn’t hurt anyone to get a brush up on these commonly misused words and understand their differences!


One of the quotes from the TV series Friends that forever sticks in my mind is Ross yelling at Rachel about the long letter she wrote to him, and as she storms out of the room he screams at her, “Oh, and by the way, Y-O-U-’R-E means you are, Y-O-U-R means your!”

The thing about this tricky word is that there aren’t just two words to accidentally flip around if you’re not paying attention; there’s a third one you can possibly confuse the other ones with. These are three homophones — words that sound exactly like another common word — and we use them so often in speech and in writing that it’s easy to make a mistake.

Let’s start with THEIR. I probably use this one the most in my writing. This word always indicates possession, as in the following two examples…

Their hands were hurting from typing all day.

The men were yelling bloody murder because the advances on their novels were so low.

Notice the possession? The hands of two or more people. The novels of two or more men. If you’re not sure which use of the words to use, think to yourself, is there possession here? Whose hands? Whose novels?

Now let’s look at THERE. This version of the word often indicates a place, telling us where something is in terms of location.

Where is the book? It’s over there.

Another way to use the word is as an expletive, in which you introduce information that’s provided someplace later in the sentence.

There are three authors who want to read from their new books tonight.

If you’re not sure what to use, ask yourself whether the word indicates the existence of something or a location. If it does, go with THERE.

Lastly, we have THEY’RE. This one to ME is the most obvious — you’d think the apostrophe makes it so — but you have no idea how often I see this word used the wrong way in writing.

Imagine the voice of Ross Gellar: “T-H-E-Y-’R-E means they are!” The apostrophe is your clue that you have two words essentially formed into one.

I can’t believe they’re going to read that silly picture book.

When you see the apostrophe, break it up, or don’t.

Lastly, let’s put all three of these words in the same sentence and see how I do!

They’re writing their books over there.

I probably would never write a sentence like that in my fiction writing, but you get the idea.


Now I’m thinking about Bill Hader’s brilliant idea to call the sequel to the 2017 horror movie It, ITS. I assume without the apostrophe.

Here’s the deal — I see this error all the time, a person meaning to write ITS and he/she writes IT’S instead. I’m talking, all the time. In my student papers. In fiction I’ve read for creative writing workshops.

Here’s the easy way to remember which one to use in a sentence. Its is the possessive form of it, and it’s is a contraction of it is, like they’re is a contraction of they are, and you’re is a contraction of you are.

When my Kindle fell to the floor, its screen broke, but luckily it’s still working.

Its = possessive. It’s = it is.

The world will be a better place as soon as everybody learns these rules!

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