Via this column, we'll explore one grammar rule each week. If you have a grammar question you'd like me to address, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll do my best to answer it.
Homophonic heterographs are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and mean different things, like "piece" and "peace," for example.
Just as the meaning of our existence can be deceiving, so can the meaning of heterographs. This is why we need Neo to help us see through the grammar matrix and explain the reality of word usage!
They're vs. their vs. there
"There" describes the location of something. It's always used with variations of the verb "to be," as in are, is, was, were or has/have been.
- There is no spoon.
- The answer is out there, Neo, and it's looking for you.
"Their" is a form of "they" and is a possessive adjective, so it indicates the ownership of a noun. Replace it with "our" to test if it's correct.
- Yet, their strength and their speed are still based in a world that is built on rules.
"They're" is the contraction of "they are." If substituting it with "they are" doesn't work, then you've made a mistake. It can only be used as a subject and verb.
- They're coming for you, Neo, and I don't know what they're going to do.
Your vs. you're
"Your" is a form of ownership.
- To your left there is a window: open it.
"You're" is the contraction of "you are." If substituting it with "you are" doesn't work, then there's no other choice but to use "your."
- I know why you're here, Neo.
It's vs. Its
"Its" is a pronoun that shows ownership or possession.
- A triumph only equaled by its monumental failure.
"It's" is the contraction of "it is." If substituting it with "it is" doesn't work, then there's no other choice but to use "its."
- It's the question that drives us, Neo. It's the question that brought you here.
Also, check out Grammar Hammer: Avoiding Apostrophe Abominations for more info on contractions, including "it's."