What are the specific uses and differences of "it" and "that" in anaphoric reference? Sometimes they can be used interchangeably and sometimes they can't.

I am teaching back referencing as a conversational strategy next week, and I was trying to find a way to distinguish the uses of "it" or "that" as a anaphoric determiner. I did a few searchers, but could find no reliable information regarding these words. Looking at a few textual examples, I was able to conclude that

  1. "That" refers to a general idea or whole clause
  2. "That" can be used for emphasis, whereas the use of "it" would carry no specific emphasis
  3. "It" it refers more to actions
  4. "It" can also refer to ideas or clauses, but only if these ideas or clauses precede "it" almost immediately so that there is a more temporal reference

Here is an example, with anaphorics in bold:

D: I bet you were furious.
M: No, not at all, it’s just that…you know, I just don’t want our coffee shop to become another branch of Café Pronto. They’re all the same, aren’t they?
D: That’s true. I’m not keen on the idea either. You’re very fond of the place, aren’t you?
M: Of course. I know we don’t go there very often, but I think of all that work we did getting it ready.
D: How could I forget it? All the cleaning and painting and stuff we did with Rob. I quite enjoyed that, actually.
M: Yes, me too.


3 Answers 3


The main answer is that that and this can be used as deictic pronouns, and it cannot. Whether the “getting pointed out/at” feature is particularly relevant depends on the specific intent of the speaker, and isn’t always necessary or meaningful.

Beyond that, I don’t think there is much of an answer to when you specifically need to use that (or this) versus it when referring back to previous general references. In a few cases, one may be preferred over another, and a native speaker will have a feel for it. But this isn’t easy to spell out as clearly fish or fowl, and these are often interchangeable because people know what you must mean.

  • 1
    The forward/backward metaphor doesn't map very well to the proximal/distal dimension of demonstratives. This is what's closer to the speaker or what's being pointed to; is that the past or the future? This is hard to determine. That is hard to determine, too. Commented May 10, 2013 at 15:02

“It” implies something that is already the subject of discussion. “That” refers to a topic being discussed. “That” has a more specific and concrete implication, whereas “It” is more general and abstract.


A: "You've gotta go with me."

B: "Would you please stop talking now, it's annoying."


A: "Your answer was accepted."

B: "Oh, that's great!"


That/This = physical, distance, discomfort - seeks relief in distance

It = abstract, confidence – even regarding negative conditions

  1. You know it´s true. (abstract, confidence)
  2. That´s not what I meant. (discomfort)
  3. Of course I know that. (discomfort)
  4. That´s too much for me. (physical)
  5. It´s too much for me. (abstract)
  6. What is it? (abstract)
  7. What is that? (physical)
  8. That´s hot! (physical, discomfort)
  9. That´s a good idea (not mine = distance)
  10. That feels good (physical)
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