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Learning and using English I'm always confused about what word to use for referring to things that have been described by me a few sentences earlier: "that" or "this".

Confusion comes from the fact that only the equivalent of "this" is always used in my native language for such referring. But I've noticed that in English for such referring "that" is used as often as "this" (or maybe even more often).

Some examples for illustrating (just tried to google something appropriate to convey my idea better):

We assess local... the demographics of the local population. What are the natural traffic drivers in the area. Things like cinemas and pubs and retail and office and all that type of things and we now put together a bit of a matrix and actually give a weighted score to each of the things we know help our business. That helps us decide in a more scientific fashion.

or:

The problem of Cervantes' origin became after that into a tough matter. Some experts believed that the Cervantes from Alcázar, in the times of the Lepanto Battle, was in the age of a child, more concerned about gathering nests and that type of things than about fighting as a soldier.

and for "this":

I believe lot of people who involved fishery industries in Mexico Gulf are suffering now but as for economic issues, U.S government and other countries will support them and give an utmost response to it. Important thing is that we learn from this mistake and make sure this type of things will never happen in the future and protect nature environment thus we have to take this technology to get energy from water very seriously. I really hope this technology will be available and used for everybody as soon as possible.

Is there a rule describing proper usage of these words in cases like this? (or should I have written "..in cases like that"?)

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4  
Does "that type of things" and "this type of things" sound right to everyone else? It sounds really awkward to me. –  Kosmonaut Oct 24 '10 at 1:10
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@Kosmo, yup. I'd put "these" or "those", which I guess are analogous to "this" and "that". –  Benjol Oct 25 '10 at 8:28
    
@Benjol. Agreed, these are improper uses of "that" and "this." –  Adam J.R. Erickson Oct 25 '10 at 16:14
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Note: the use of language in the first example is very casual or sloppy; the second and third seem to have been written by non-native speakers. –  Cerberus Sep 8 '11 at 4:15

2 Answers 2

up vote 17 down vote accepted

"This" is analogous to "here", whereas "that" is analogous to "there". If you mentally substitute this/that with "this here" or "that there", one will often seem to be the obvious choice. Another way of thinking about it is if you imagine actually showing the other person the thing you are talking about, would you point to it, or hold it up to show them? If you would point to it, use "that"; if you would hold it up to show them, use "this".

For a concept or idea introduced a few sentences before, I think the key thing is whether it was introduced by you or the person you're talking to. If you introduced it, you're "holding" the idea - use "this". If they introduced it, they're "holding" it - use "that".

As for your last sentence ("Is there a rule describing proper usage of these words in cases like this?") "this" sounds much more natural and correct. I think that's because you are presenting some examples for consideration, so you can imagine that you are holding them in your hand/head and showing them to the target of your question, hence "this".

Interestingly, if I were to then refer to your examples I could use either "this" or "that". Both would sound fine, but have different implications. "This" implies that I have taken your examples/concept/idea into my own headspace to examine and consider close-up, and am still considering them. "That" implies that they are with you, rather than me; either because I'm considering and commenting on them from "over here", as your examples, or possibly that I've brought them into my own headspace, considered them, and have given them back to you prior to commenting on them. Either way, the implication is that they are your examples - I haven't taken on shared custody of them.

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"I think that's because you are presenting some examples for consideration[...]" -- should you have said "this is" instead? –  jcoon Nov 8 '12 at 15:55

I have often asked myself that (or is it "this"?) question. Most usage books I've read give a rule about use of this and that when the speaker is referring to objects that are nearby in space or time. But this question is about usage of this or that when referring to a concept or idea. I have found very few usage books that state the rule for this situation. The one rule that I found somewhere states to use "that" when the writer is simply referring backwards to make reference to a previously stated idea, but to use "this" when the writer is referring to a previously stated idea and making a new statement about the idea. I don't know if that is the correct rule, though. If it is, then I think the correct usage for the above sentence is "this" because the sentence refers back to the concept and says something new about it: it is not a problem. But I'm not really sure and I hope we can get an answer.

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