In this post, Nigel Caplan explores the use of ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘these’, and ‘those’. You can read his thoughts on choosing between ‘it’ and ‘this’ here.
All four words – this, that, these, and those – can be used as either pronouns (e.g. as the subject of a verb) or determiners (to specify a noun, e.g. these days). There are two important distinctions between them. In terms of grammar, this and that are used with singular nouns, while these and those are used with plural nouns. However, in terms of meaning, the choice is more complicated.
Most literally, this/these are used for things that are near to the speaker, while that/those are used for things that are far from the speaker.
“Look at this picture. (this = the picture that I’m holding)”
“Look at that picture. (that = the picture that’s on the opposite wall of the room)”
However, the meaning of near and far can include proximity in time and context, as well as location. For example, as we saw in last month’s column, this often refers to the last idea in a text:
“Pianos need to be tuned at least once a year. This is because the strings lose tension over time.”
You can use that/those to refer to something another person said or to an earlier idea in a text or talk.
“Would you like to go to the park?”
“That’s a great idea!”
“Earlier, I spoke about hybrid cars. Unlike those cars, electric cars don’t require a gasoline engine.”
This is often used with expressions of time that are close to the present:
“What classes are you taking this semester?”
“It’s hard for teenagers to find part-time jobs these days.”
On the other hand, that is common when we talk about past, possible, or hypothetical events.
“We might have a new student next week. In that case, we will need to find an extra desk.”
“When the railways were first built, there were no standard time zones. In those days, each station could set its own time.”
Sometimes, writers and speakers use these words for special emphasis, so watch out for that, too! This downloadable handout has practice exercises about this, that, these, and those.