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When is it NOT appropriate to use the combined words of "they" and "are"? (e.g., They're)

Is there a grammatical rule to only refer to people or can it also refer to things?

Referring to printed paper forms: "They're in the back office."

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Some style guides consider contractions to be informal, and therefore would not be used in certain contexts.

Beyond that, there's no grammatical restraint, either on they are vs. they're or the referent of the pronoun they. They is the plural pronoun for both he/she and it.

So "They are in the back room" can refer to two or more people or two or more objects. (I would not, however, mix them. If you have a woman in the back room who is holding a bunch of printed forms, you would say "She has them in the back room.")

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  • Are you sure? I've heard this is "all over the inter-net" saying using "they're" is grammatically incorrect. When asking, "When is it correct then?" The answer remains unanswered... just that's it's a new rule. – Rita B May 10 '16 at 21:03
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    You can find any point of view on any subject "all over the internet" ... it's up to you to find a credible source. One such is this forum, and @Lauren is one of the authoritative users here. I personally would take her advice if I were you. (And +1 to Lauren.) – Robusto May 10 '16 at 21:21
  • I really appreciate this forum. It really helps... thanks! – Rita B May 10 '16 at 21:32
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    @RitaB, bear in mind that because so many people confuse "they're", "there" and "their", the results thrown up by any search asking the subtler question you are asking are likely to be outnumbered by the results thrown up by people confused between the three similar-sounding words. – Lostinfrance May 11 '16 at 6:37
  • @RitaB If you can link to any authoritative source — that is, not just some forum with people talking, like this one :) — which states that using "they're" is grammatically incorrect when used as a contraction for "they are," we can discuss it. I think Lostinfrance is probably closer to the mark: you're finding people asking about the homonyms rather than when to use the contraction. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum May 11 '16 at 10:02

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