Monday, March 11, 2013

Are you there or their or they're?

Grammar mavens know the difference among these three homophones, but do you? Take this quick quiz to test your knowledge. Select the correct spelling in each of the following sentences.

Who's (their/there/they're)?

They had better watch (their/there/they're) backs.

(Their/there/they're) going to be in big trouble.

Before I reveal the answers, let's inspect each of these three words to see how they are supposed to function.

"Their" is a possessive personal pronoun, so it is used to show ownership. It is always used before a noun. Their cat, their books, their vacation, their phobias, their unusual collection, their twin Porsches, their quant, unpretentious home on the Riviera are all proper uses of "their."

"There" is an adverb and is used to indicate position or location. Put the marble bust over there on the mantle. I want to go there.

"There" is also used as a noun meaning that place or that position. For example, "Chris will drive to Paoli and take the train from there."

"There" can also be used as a pronoun, usually as the subject of a sentence that uses some form of the "to be" verb (is, are, was, were, will). Here are some examples: "There are 26 letters in the alphabet."  "There Will Be Blood."  "Is there any reason why I should believe you?"

"There" can also be used as an interjection, a word that shows strong emotion or sentiment. You can imagine your sweet Auntie Eustace saying, "There, there, dear. Don't worry."

"They're" is a contraction, a substitution for "they are." Contractions give a more conversational tone to your writing. "Have you tried Eclat caramels? They're my favorites." "They're waiting." "They're watching the children."

Some helpful hints:

First, notice that all three words begin with THE. Forget the i-before-e rule--it's THEIR.

Second, when in doubt, substitute.

  • If the sentence makes sense if you substitute "his" or "her," then "THEIR" is the correct choice. (His cat, her book, her vacation, his phobia--you get it, right?)
  • If it makes sense using "here," go with "there."This substitution only works if "there" is used as an adverb, but if neither of the other substitution tricks work, you are safe in assuming that "there" is the word you want.
  •  If it makes sense using "they are," use "THEY'RE." (They are my favorites; they are waiting; they are watching the children.)
Third, notice that "there" can be used in four very different ways. In most instances, it is the right choice.

Finally, if you are still not sure, the safest trick of all is to rewrite the sentence to eliminate the word "there" entirely. The result will usually be a stronger sentence.

Do you want to go back and check your answers? Go ahead.

Drumroll, please ....
Who's there?
(In this case, there is an adverb showing position. You could substitute the word "here" and the sentence would still make sense.)

They had better watch their backs.
(Here, the word "their" tells us whose backs they are watching. To check your response, you have to do a little more work in the substitution--We had better watch our backs--but it still works.)

They're going to be in big trouble.
(In this sentence, "they're" is a contraction. You can substitute "they are" and the sentence will be grammatically correct.)

If you answered all three correctly, give yourself a pat on the back.

Please let me know if you have other questions about homophones.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Collaborate vs corroborate

The words collaborate and corroborate don't fall under the category of homophones (see last post), but people do confuse them on occasion. This confusion causes more problems in speaking than in writing, which makes me think the misattributions are more a slip of the tongue than an actual lack of knowledge. Sometimes people substitute a less frequently used word under the assumption that it makes them sound smarter. Sometimes people don't even recognize that there is a distinction.

Regardless of why they are confused, it's easy to separate the two words, despite their similarities. How are they similar? Both are transitive verbs that form nouns the same way (the verb collaborate turns into the noun collaboration, and the verb corroborate turns into the noun corroboration), and they both have to do with working together in some capacity.

How are these words different, then?

Collaborate means to work together. For example (shameless plug here), my mother and I collaborated on Pizza Friday. Lennon and McCartney formed one of the most successful musical collaborations of all time.

On the other hand, corroborate means to confirm or give support to a statement, theory or finding. Your doctor might use corroborate this way: "The tests corroborated my diagnosis." A detective might say, "Fingerprint evidence corroborated the witness's testimony that you were in the apartment."

Looking at the history of a word can help clarify meaning. I love to explore the roots of words both because I can get a more precise definition and often expand my vocabulary in the process of seeing other related words. Remember, I was an English major, and I take my fun where I can get it!

The root of collaborate is "laborere-" (to labor). In addition to the word labor, other words that come from the same root include elaborate and laborious.

The word corroborate comes from the root "robor-" (strength). Another word that comes from this same root is robust.

The bottom line: To collaborate is to labor or work together. To corroborate is to provide strength, um, evidence.

If you have pairs of words that you'd like to learn more about, please let me know. Happy Sunday!