Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ask Your Editor: Is it "there," "their," or "they're"? Let's talk usage.

Some very basic, but very common mistakes I find when editing are usage mistakes. These involve swapping one word for another because they (very often) sound alike and spell check won’t catch them (although grammar check sometimes—and I emphasize sometimes—will).

Here’s a quick rundown of the most common usage errors:

  • Are / Our – These two don’t always sound the same, but often they do, which I think is what leads to their confusion. Practice your enunciation and I think you’ll confuse them less often.
    • Are – is a verb.
      • The chocolate ├ęclairs are my favorite. 
    • Our – is a possessive pronoun and indicates “we” own something. 
      • Our house is the first one on the right. 
  • Affect / Effect – There are some nuances to these two, but 99 percent of the time, you can rely on the following: 
    • Affect – is a verb. Think of it as another way to say “to influence.” 
      • How will the weather affect the town-wide yard sale? 
    • Effect – is a noun and can usually be thought of as the consequence (result) of something. 
      • What was the effect of adding salt to the recipe? 
  • All right – This is a personal pet peeve, and I really don’t have very many of those. “All right” is always, always, always two words. Always. And while we’re at it, so is 
  • A lot 
  • Farther / Further – Although they are both adverbs, there are distinct differences between how they are used. 
    • Farther – should be used to describe a physical distance. 
      • It’s farther to my grandparents’ house than it is to my aunt’s. 
    • Further – should be used to describe a figurative distance, or to imply something should be done to a greater degree. 
      • My English teacher drove me crazy because she always wanted me to take my literature discussions further than I wanted to. 
  • Its / It’s – Another pair that sound exactly alike and that have been confused for each other for centuries. 
    • Its – is a possessive pronoun indicating ownership. 
      • I think that dog has lost its bone. 
    • It’s – is a contraction for “it is.” 
      • Do you think it’s going to rain today? 
  • There / Their / They’re – Yes, these three words sound identical to each other, but they serve three very different purposes. 
    • There – is an adverb and indicates where something is located. 
      • My wallet is lying over there on the table. 
    • Their – is a possessive pronoun and indicates “they” own something. 
      • Do you know if their house is on this street? 
    • They’re – is a contraction for “they are.” 
      • Of all our friends, they’re the ones I like the best. 
  • Where / Were – Whenever this duo gets mixed up, it surprises me because they sound nothing alike. However, even outside the classroom, it’s a usage mistake I still see often. 
    • Where – is an adverb indicating place or location. 
      • Do you know where the game is tonight? That is where she said it was. 
    • Were – is a verb. 
      • They were going to call us later tonight. 
I could go on—and probably should—but this gets us started. I’ll probably revisit usage, but not likely in my next post. Maybe we should talk about voice … or formatting … or launch dates … What would you like me to discuss? Message me your comments and questions! 

Keep writing. Talk to you soon!


  1. I love this post! Clever and helpful, just like you...