These must be some of the most common homophones that people mix up. I think that the confusion perhaps comes from a lack of teaching of the verb to be in schools, or perhaps a lack of listening on the part of the students. (I’m not pointing any fingers though!)

Their and they’re (and there)

First things first. Their is a possessive, that means, it shows that something belongs to someone, in this case THEM.

So, when you would say them, you use their for anything belonging to them.

Imagine a field of cows, or a playground full of kids (not much difference there really…)

Look at those cows, look at them and their nice field.

Look at those kids, look at them and their lovely climbing frame. etc.

They’re is a part of the verb TO BE (see below). It means THEY ARE and we lose the a and add ‘ (see more explanation below).

So, when you want to talk about a group of two or more people, you use they’re.

Do you know John and Carron? They’re a really nice couple.

The army is encroaching on Kabul. They’re very fierce.

The cows live in that field. They’re black and white.  

It isn’t really that hard. Best way is to think, does this belong to some people or some things? Then you use their.

Agh. What about there, then? Well that’s even more different. There is what’s called a directional adverb, or adjective. In normal speak, that means it tells you where something is.

Which shop? The shop over there.

There is my cup of tea! I have been looking everywhere for it.

I’m going to Marbella. I’ll be flying there.

It’s also used to tell you something exists (or may or should or does not exist) and its quantity.

There is a cat in the garden.

There are six eggs in the fridge.

There may be a ghost in the basement.

There really ought to be a referendum on these proposals.

There are no more prizes to hand out to shiny cats. (A crying shame methinks). 

It’s a lot to remember, but here is a fun (?) little example tying it all togeths.

There are loads of cows in that field there. Whose cows are they? And who are those people over there?

Those people, over there, are Farmer James and his wife Elsie. They’re their cows.

Moo.

Your and you’re

First things first (again). Your is a possessive, that means, it shows that something belongs to someone, in this case either you, or someone else. You can be singular, or plural, so it could be your and (a) friend/s, or a group of other people. Examples are:

Your pen

Your steam iron

Your cat comb

Your Jaguar XL5 (You wish!)

Your football kits (talking to a team)

You’re is a part of the verb TO BE which is the verb that tells us about being. That verb goes,

I am

You are

He/She/It is

We are

You are (plural)

They are

What we do is, remove the a from you are and replace it with an apostrophe (‘). The reason this happened is that saying you are naturally in speech gets shortened so it sounds like you’re. The apostrophe denotes there is a letter missing (letter a) and so it’s easily identified in written form as: the verb to be, second and fifth person (you are singular, you are plural).

Your is used so often for you’re in texts and on the internet (social media sites mainly) that it seems fairly ubiquitous. I am not sure if this is a) a lack of knowledge b) laziness c) an inability to use the apostrophe key on a phone or keyboard, or a combination of b and c. While it might not seem important, the words your and you’re in fact are as different as chalk and cheese, and if your gets subsumed into the language as a correct spelling of you’re, this would be a shame as the apostrophe is there for a reason, and it would spell trouble for understanding the written word.

While it’s pretty obvious when you’re speaking if you are talking about something belonging to someone (can I borrow your pen), or using a verb (you’re going out tonight, aren’t you?) in the written form it can be confusing. The amount of times I’ve seen something eloquent like “your wrong” or “your stupid” (in both examples the speaker is most likely referring to themselves…) and have to think twice because I don’t own a stupid or a wrong. I don’t think anyone does – maybe there’s a gap in the market?

Here’s a little fun example of how confusing this could get If we lost the you’re spelling altogether. (WARNING THIS IS NOT IN CORRECT GRAMMAR THAT’S THE POINT!)

Annie: Who did the washing up?

Bertie: Your mum.

Annie: I’m not Mum….

Bertie: No I’m not saying your Mum I’m saying that your mum did it…

Charlotte (Annie’s mum): But I’m Mum!

Bertie: Yes, your Mum but your not your mum.

Hand me one of your sleeping pills… I need it after reading that.

Mum…(and so on)

Another little thing I’ll add in here is that the word MUM only has a capital letter when it’s used as someone’s name. For example,

Can you pass me the cat, Mum?

In this following example, it’s not a name, it’s referring to a type of person:

Is your mum coming to the cat grooming contest?

If you said Is your Mum coming… it’s not different to saying is your Jenny coming, or Is your Mr. Barnes coming etc.. which people do in some parts of the UK, such as Liverpool, (ooouuur Rita) but it’s not “standard” usage. This applies to all names for family roles, such as dad, aunty, uncle, brother, cousin, parent etc. Don’t say, My Uncle is coming to the Shiny Pets Contest, but you can say, Uncle Timothy is polishing the parrot in readiness for the feathered friends display. (Though If you said that last sentence, I would be concerned about you, in all fairness, and the parrot…)