Demonstrative pronouns ‘this, that’ & ‘these, those’

(Use of the demonstratives ‘this, that, these, those’ in English)

Table of contents – demonstrative pronouns

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Forms of demonstrative pronouns
  2. Word order and functions in a sentence
  3. Local and temporal aspects
  4. Further explanations and exercises

What are the English demonstrative pronouns?

In general, demonstrative pronouns are small words that point to something. There are just four in the English language, which are ‘this, that’ and ‘these, those’. Their meaning only differs in terms of singular and plural (which means the number of the antecedent they refer to) and how far away the antecedent is located from the speaker.

Independently, they can refer to things but also to persons:

  • Those houses up there are huge.”
    • In this example, the things are the huge houses.
  • This is my sister.”
    • In this sentence, somebody introduces a person.

Forms

The English demonstrative pronouns never change; they always keep the forms listed in the following table. Compare:

  Close to the speaker Farther away from the speaker
Singular this that
Plural these those

Where can demonstratives be positioned in an English sentence?

A further distinction regarding English demonstrative pronouns has to be made between their use in combination with a noun, on the one hand, and their isolated occurrence (which means they stand alone), on the other hand. Compare the details:

  • If ‘this, that, these, those’ are used in conjunction with a noun, they adopt the role of a determiner (which means they accompany the noun and always appear together with it). If this is the case, the noun is positioned either directly after the pronoun or after a subsequent adjective:
    • “I have never seen that woman.”
      • In this example, the noun ‘woman’ comes directly after the pronoun ‘that’.
    • This old mirror belonged to my grandmother.”
      • By all means, an adjective (as ‘old’ in this instance) may be positioned between the pronoun and the noun.
  • Likewise, ‘this, that, these’, and ‘those’ may also occur alone, which means without a noun. Then, the antecedent may be located in a different part of the sentence (as shown in the table of functions below) or may not be present in the sentence at all. In case of such an absence, the pronoun always points to something that is known to all persons that are involved in the communication:
    • That is a terrible idea.”
      • The noun ‘idea’ as the antecedent appears at the end of the sentence, the pronoun ‘that’ at the beginning.
    • This is absolute nonsense!”
      • This utterance is about a matter that has been mentioned before. Otherwise, the statement would not be clear and ambiguous.
  • Do not forget: Without a noun as an antecedent, pronouns always have to point to something known.

Functions in the sentence

In a sentence, pronouns can adopt the functions as a subject and also as an object. Always keep the English word order S–V–O in mind:

Demonstrative pronoun … Subject Verb Object Adverbial (place, time, manner, etc.)
… without a noun (stand-alone) That costs a lot of money.  
I have bought these today.
… with a noun (as a determiner) This lady needs some help.  
Monica liked those flowers very much.

How are ‘this, these, that’, and ‘those’ used?

Demonstrative pronouns can be used differently in English, as they may point to various aspects. As a result, the main distinction is made between place and time:

Referring to place (local)

If the words ‘this, that’ and ‘these, those’ directs to places – which means with local aspect –, the distance between the speaker and the place referred to needs to be considered. Is the object (or person) near, which means the speaker can reach it, ‘this’ or ‘these’ are used. Is this not the case, ‘that’ and ‘those’ are suitable. Compare the details:

  • If the pronoun refers to something in close proximity, either ‘this’ or ‘these’ is adequate:
    • This chair is very comfortable.”
      • In this situation, the speaker can touch the chair.
    • This town offers a lot of culture.”
      • This example describes the surroundings (as a town cannot really be ‘touched’). The speaker is standing somewhere in the town.
    • “Would you like to try one of these cookies?”
      • The cookies are located within reach of the questioner.
  • On the contrary, ‘that’ and ‘those’ are required if something is beyond the personal reach:
    • “Look, I went to that school when I was young.”
      • The school can be seen from the distance.
    • Those little dogs were so sweet.”
      • The dogs are clearly not at the same place as the speaker anymore.

Referring to time (temporal)

Whenever they refer to temporal aspects, ‘this, that, these, those’ also have a special meaning. The main difference here is the fact if something chronologically points to the present or the past. If it is still a current matter, ‘this’ and ‘these’ are usually employed, whereas ‘that’ and ‘those’ are adequate for something chronologically completed. This differentiation means in detail:

  • this’ and ‘these’ mainly refer to periods of time that have not ended yet, in other words, in the present. They also point to actions that are happening now in which the speaker is involved:
    • This week has been horrible!”
      • The week has not ended yet.
    • This show is simply amazing.”
      • The speaker is watching the show right now.
    • “Almost everybody has a car these days.”
      • The statement is about the present and hence refers to a current situation.
  • that’ and ‘those’ are very often used to indicate past time. They can also designate finished actions or processes:
    • “I will never forget that week.”
      • This comment is about an experience in the past.
    • That performance wasn’t very interesting.”
      • In this case, the show (which means the process) is already over.
    • “We really enjoyed those four days in London.”
      • The speakers are no longer in London; the visit there is over.

Further explanations referring to the ‘Demonstrative pronouns’

The following explanations are related to the topic ‘Demonstrative pronouns in English grammar’ and might be interesting as well:

  • The subject in English grammar
  • The object in English grammar
  • Overview of English pronouns
  • Signal words for English verb tenses
  • Exercise 1: demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those)