English has many genuinely confusing words in its vocabulary, but the words discussed in this post are unfortunately not part of them. The difference between these commonly confused words is relatively straightforward, yet they are commonly mixed up with one another, especially online.
When do we use your instead of you’re? Perhaps you’ve found yourself doubting between than or then? Ever struggled with the trio of commonly confused words; their, there or they’re? Or perhaps dawdled over the use of its or it’s?
This post will highlight the differences between each word’s meaning and offer example sentences to situate each word in a given context. Hopefully you won’t find yourself mixing up these words again, thereby sparing yourself the embarrassment of having someone else spot this mistake in your work.
Then vs Than
Then is mainly an adverb, often used to situate actions in time (e.g. First I woke up and then I had breakfast). It also works as a noun meaning ‘that time’ (e.g. We lived in a big house back then).
Than is a conjunction used mainly in making comparisons (e.g. I was more productive today than yesterday). It is used especially after a comparative adjective or adverb.
Your vs You’re
Your is the possessive form of ‘you’ and means ‘belongs to you’. It is a second-person possessive adjective used as a modifier before a noun (e.g. What’s your name?).
You’re is a contraction of the words you and are (e.g. You’re so thoughtful). The use of the apostrophe signals the omitted letter a from are.
There vs Their vs They’re
This is the trio of commonly confused words. It’s confusing because they are homophones, meaning they have the same pronunciation (sound) but differ in meaning and derivation (origin).
There is an adverb which means the opposite of here, or ‘at that place’ (e.g. Let’s go there for dinner tonight). There is also used as a pronoun, introducing a sentence or a clause (e.g. There is a chance of rain today).
Their is the possessive case of the pronoun ‘they’ and means ‘belongs to them’. It’s generally plural (e.g. Their laughter brightens up the room) but increasingly accepted in place of his or her and with words such as someone (e.g. Someone left their bag behind).
They’re is a contraction of the words they and are (e.g. They’re a fun bunch of people to spend time with). In case you draw a blank, take a hint from the apostrophe; they’re is a product of two words.
Its vs It’s
Its, without an apostrophe, is the possessive of the pronoun it. It’s, with an apostrophe, is the contraction of it is or it has.
If you are doubting which spelling to apply, try replacing it with it is or it has, and if neither of these phrases works in its place, then its is the word you’re looking for (e.g. Our company changed its name; it’s presently known as DutchCo).
Most English speakers are comfortable with the differences between the various spellings mentioned above, however even the most careful writers might mix them up in careless moments. Such errors are known as typos, not grammar mistakes, and can usually be avoided with a quick proofread. If you often find yourself making the above mistakes, consider giving yourself extra time for editing prior to submitting your work or sending out an important email.