I hope everyone had a happy holiday, whatever their preferred holidays might be. And there we have the theme of this post. No, not holidays — they’re not what this blog is about. Words: their, there, and they’re.
So, we’ve got this sound /ðɛɚ/ and we need to figure out which spelling is correct, right? Actually, if you look at it in terms of deciding which word to use in the sentence, ignoring how it’s pronounced, you won’t have any problems at all. The word isn’t just a transcription of a sound — it means something. Once you know which meaning you need, it’s easy.
Let’s look at there first, since it’s arguably the simplest. When we examine it closely, the thing that jumps out at us is that it contains the word here. While this isn’t always a reliable indicator, it is in this case: there refers to location. “Where have you been?” “Here and there.” So if you’re referring to a location, you want there. An easy way to tell is if you can substitute here without breaking the sentence (it might be stupid, but the parts of speech are still okay) then it’s there. “My base is here” works as well as “my base is there” so that’s definitely there.
Likewise, they’re is easy to sort out when you look at it closely. Apostrophes indicate possession or contraction, and when the apostrophe isn’t followed by an ‘s’ it must be a contraction. Words like they’re, we’re, and you’re are, contractions of they+are, we+are, and you+are. So, if what you mean is they are, then you want they’re. Another easy check: substitute the non-contracted phrase. If “they are playing Minecraft” works right, then you’re looking for “they’re playing Minecraft.”
This leaves us with their. It’s not referring to location, and it’s not a contraction, so what is it? When you look at it a bit, you realize that it’s similar to other possessive pronouns like our and your. That’s exactly what it is: a possessive pronoun. When I get around to writing about why its doesn’t get an apostrophe I’ll rant about this more, but remember that possessive pronouns are words in themselves, and despite being possessive (like Aky’s blog) they don’t have apostrophes. Want to check if their is the word you’re looking for? See if you can substitute your instead. If “your spelling is perfect” works, then “their spelling is perfect” is what you want.
So, if you look at it as “What is the right word for this thing?” instead of “how do I transcribe the sound /ðɛɚ/?” it’s easy.
You spell ‘not-here’ there.
You spell ‘they are’ they’re.
You spell ‘belonging to them’ their.
And how exactly you write /ðɛɚ/ doesn’t come into it at all, because you don’t care what it sounds like, only what it means.