On the telephone, the person answering it may say "Who is calling?" or "Who is this?" Why do you say "this" to the caller on the other end of the phone? Is is wrong to say "Who is that?"

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    Because you're speaking to the other person, you share a common reference frame (this telephone conversation here, not that one there). Asking "Who is that?" would be like asking "Who is he?" instead of "Who are you?" – FumbleFingers Aug 18 '13 at 0:07
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    if your child came walking up to you with a friend you'd never met, would you ask your child, "Who's that?" or "Who's this?" – Jim Aug 18 '13 at 1:41
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    As Fillmore describes it in his Deixis Lectures, in a phone conversation, in a statement, this refers to the speaker: This is Bill; in a question, this refers to the listener: Is this Harry? Similarly, in a statement that refers to some noise or person on the speaker's end: That's Max you hear; in a question that refers to some noise or person on the listener's end: Is that Mary I hear? – John Lawler Aug 18 '13 at 2:52
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    Somewhat related: “John, phone call for you!” — “Who is it?” – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 18 '13 at 5:16
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    I'm with TrevorD on this one - BrE uses that. It seems logical to use that for something/someone remote from the speaker. A traditionalist Brit might think the caller was playing games if he was asked to guess "Who is this?" – DavidR Aug 18 '13 at 11:56

"This" and "that" are used to reference something. "This" usually refers to something close by. "That" refers to something far away. So the distance differentiates "This" and "That. The distance does not have to be a physical distance but could be a metaphorical distance too; closeness in time or similarity. You can say "Who is this?" to someone on the phone (close to your ear). But you say "Who is that?" to someone on the street while you are sitting in the living room. I hope this clears it up for you. Otherwise, the confusion continues and we don't want that.


You would say "Who is this" because this is a Predicate Nominative and shares the same context as the subject. For example, both "Who is this?" (Subjective) and "Whom is that?" (Objective) are correct. Also, "Whose is this?" is also correct (Possessive).

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    I don't think you would ever say "whom is that" or "whose is this" when answering the phone. – MetaEd Aug 19 '13 at 15:16
  • You wouldn't; I didn't realize what I implied. I just meant that whom is that and whose is this are grammatically correct. – Timtech Aug 19 '13 at 15:43
  • But "whom is that" is not grammatically correct. "This" and "that" don't have anything to do with subjective and objective case. – sumelic Jun 24 '17 at 0:47

It may not be technically wrong but it sounds just a bit awkward to me to say "Who is that?" over the phone.

I agree with Pickle55 for the most part. "This" seems to me to imply something which is immediately at hand, nearby physically or in time or more intangibly, something involved in my current conversation or activity. "That" seems to be external, far away physically or temporally or metaphorically outside of my current conversation or activity.

I found a very simple article here describing the way these two words are often used in common American speech. I have no clue if that's a valid reference or not (I need to read the rules about citations) but it made sense to me.

I say that it sounds awkward in the sentence "Who is that?" only because it seems just off to me, so its only a matter of my personal opinion.

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