We’re/were: huh?

Recently, one of my English Facebook friends wrote that she and her family had just survived a very cold May Bank Holiday weekend camping with snow on the hills. “We’re you in a caravan?” one of her friends asked. We’re for were? I understand problems with there/they’re/their, its/it’s, your/you’re, since these are homophones, and the absence or presence of the apostrophe is merely a matter of convention. But we’re/were are not homophones, so what is going on?

If you google for “we’re or were”, you get to a Dutch site called “Nu beter Engels”, which explains the difference between where, were and we’re. The site calls these words twijfelwoorden, a lovely word I hadn’t come across before either, which may be translated as “confusables”, a word I first came across in Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English by Caroline Taggart (2010). The book has as many as THIRTY pages of them, but we’re/were is not included.

Googling for we’re/were also took me to Paul Brians’s website accompanying his book Common Errors in English Usage (2003): it was actually the first hit. Brians explains the difference between the two forms. I can see that they might be problematical for non-native speakers of English, but for native speakers of English, too? I would never have guessed it, but apparently so.

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10 Responses to We’re/were: huh?

  1. Paul Brians says:

    My entry on my Web site is at http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/were2.html. I suspect in many cases people are not being confused between the two as grammatical entities. Rather, they either don’t know or have forgotten how apostrophes function. Being confused over “it’s/it’s,” they begin to think that an apostrophe is “better” than no apostrophe. They’ve seen “we’re” and something in their brain says “more sophisticated than ‘were.’:”

  2. Paul Brians says:

    Look at the title and body of this post to see somebody confused by apostrophes. They’re used properly various times but he’s inconsistent. Further down in the post: “we we’re set up with a woman at the hospital” and “we’re set.” It’s probably not sloppy typing since it takes extra effort to insert the apostrophe. Fuzzy on the concept, I think.

  3. Adrian says:

    Wells, in his “Longman Pronunciation Dictionary” (1990, first edition), agrees with you that “we’re” and “were” aren’t homophones, but they generally are for me!

  4. Margrave says:

    To be fair, this may simply be an autocorrect or predictive typing issue. Certainly my phone defaults to we’re over were for some reason, perhaps I use it more so the phone has begun to assume I always mean to use it

  5. Bram says:

    My English Facebook friends are forever posting pictures explaining the difference between were/we’re/where, their/there/they’re, you’re/your, and its/it’s. Apparently a lot of people get them mixed up, even native speaker!

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