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One of my linguistics professors speaks English as a second language, and remarked that she never knows which of the two is appropriate. Given a list of examples, all native speakers in the classroom were able to unanimously agree on which to use, but we couldn't give exact rules.

The closest we came was in the context of proximity ('this' being on the speaker, 'that' covering most of the rest), but with the exception of properties of objects on the speaker e.g. "this jacket is beautiful, I love that color."

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migrated from linguistics.stackexchange.com Jul 7 '12 at 20:37

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I don't know if there are any features in their use in American English that are different from their use in any other varities of the language. The choice between the two is usually intuitive, but remember that they can refer not only to physical proximity and distance. They can also refer to concepts that are closer or nearer to the speaker's thoughts at the time of speaking. –  Barrie England Jul 7 '12 at 21:05
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I must say I don't understand why this question was migrated. It asks a perfectly good linguistic question that this SEC is much less likely to be able to answer than linguistics.SEC. –  John Lawler Jul 7 '12 at 21:28
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A deli in my hometown used to sell three kinds of donuts – plain, sugar, and cinnamon – but the butcher who owned the place used three labels: THEM, THESE, and THOSE, and would insist that customers use that terminology. A newcomer asking for one plain donut and two cinnamon donuts would be told: "Look, we've got three kinds of donuts – them, these, and those – now wadd'ya want?" whereby he'd sheepishly say "I'd like two of those and one of them." Odd thing was (and the pertinent thing to this discussion), no matter what a customer wanted, the sentence never sounded off. –  J.R. Jul 7 '12 at 22:46
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@Barrie England I've just discovered this hidden gem. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 7 at 16:54

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

For a Linguistics class, start by reading Fillmore's Deixis Lectures.

Demonstratives like this and that are deictic, contrasting distal that with proximal this.
And they're not nearly as complex as they used to be in English, as this problem demonstrates.

Since "distal" and "proximal" are formed from the Latin words meaning far and near,
I'd say you and your class were on the right track.

But there are many many ways to be "near to" or "far from" something,
because physical motion metaphors like LIFE is a JOURNEY are a dime a dozen.

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It's largely a matter of perspective. I can say "that's a good answer" right here if I want. Just did, in fact. But I could just as easily have said "I'm upvoting this answer" (which arguably emphasises my "mental proximity" to the sentiments expressed in the answer). Given enough examples to analyse, maybe you'd find "that" more often in "dissociative, distancing" comments. Just a guess, but "That's complete rubbish" and "This is absolutely right" might be more common than the alternatives (with this/that reversed). –  FumbleFingers Jul 8 '12 at 1:28
    
Right. And in developing an essay, I often take some care figuring out whether to use this or that to refer to various concepts, facts, or hypotheses. Generally speaking, since language is temporal, this means one of them that's coming up, while that means one of them in the last sentence or paragraph. But there are a lot of variations one can ring on that. –  John Lawler Jul 8 '12 at 2:09
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We're always talking of this, that, and the other as if they were a homogeneous set. But as a teenager I used to devour Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, so I know my metaphysical/existentialist this is this, and that is that –  FumbleFingers Jul 8 '12 at 2:28
    
@FF You mean 'almost this ...' and 'somewhat that ...'? Not even I have word classes like these. Those. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 7 at 16:59

I am no expert, just a native speaker, but there is one general rule of thumb you can use, for starters to figure out which one you need. The best way to figure it out is to ask where it is.

For example, say I am holding a book. It is THIS book. It is in front of me readily apparent. Now let's say I am moving the book about 20 meters in front of me on a table, and going back where Istarted. I point to it. It is THAT book. Not readily apparent. Far away from me, cannot touch it, can barely see it.

Now, for less tangible things, talking about ideas (here is where it gets much harder) You tell a good joke. Your friend says, " THAT'S a good one!" You obviously cannot touch a joke. It is apparent to everybody. But why is THAT used? -Because you told the joke, and you own the joke, so to the speaker it is THAT joke someone over there told. Or how about if you have a gossip with your friends, something shared and apparent to all? You'll say "I like THIS" You cannot touch the gossip either, and it is apparent to everybody, but everybody participates, everybody owns the gossip, not just one guy over in the corner, it is not specific to one person.

By no means is this exhaustive, and there are probably some mistakes, but it is a good place to begin if you want to teach.

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