Dealing with informing people, sometimes in a public way, how a system or concept works can be a challenge. In an effort to educate myself on why people report confusion, feedback said the words 'this' and 'that' are sometimes to blame. I already found articles referring to inward and outward projections of 'this' vs 'that' and I have read examples and opinions of 'this' vs 'that' at the end of sentences.

I say this to prevent redundant responses. As well as using that last sentence and this one as possible examples. My inquiry is for how they are used at the beginning of a sentence and or paragraph.

How correct is it for me to use the word "this" to refer to what was concluded/identified in the sentence prior? Or sometimes the whole paragraph prior. Either way I only do so if there is only one presumable element available that can be immediately elaborated.

I want to give some additional thoughts that pertain to the question of distance being all the indication of context required. I may be incorrect and I welcome feedback:

Elaboration in some form or degree is what both words "this" and "that" express. Where "that" is more general and 'this' is specific. Thus, given the nature of time, space, and writing language, using 'that' would be something over a larger distance and 'this' would be close. For intangible ideas the distance argument should hold true relative to written text.

It is important to recognize I am dealing with intangibles, so saying "This dog also was seen sporting a bowtie and.." may not apply to the rule I am trying to confirm. For elaboration of an intangible idea I think it is only correct to use 'this' when referring to something immediately prior and enhancing the description of it immediately. If starting a paragraph or sentence with 'that' then the meaning must be intended as an indication for the reader to collect several points explained across possibly multiple paragraphs. So to prepare for how the collection of notions or facts is to be handled across several coming sentences. Or to change how they would otherwise be handled without such elaboration.

I need to report specific sequence on systems and concepts. The word "this" at the beginning of a sentence is invaluable to me. As sometimes it is an inappropriate use of space and time to attempt redundant articulation of something just said the sentence before. That all said I realize I will always run into people unaware where their reading comprehension is at, but I welcome creative ideas on how to introduce a reader to my usage needs.

Thank you for your time reading this...or that. =)

  • 5
    This is a very long read on Sunday morning if you have a hangover ...
    – Glorfindel
    Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 6:23
  • 2
    That's very true, that is.
    – Margana
    Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 7:29

5 Answers 5


Your assumption seems to be that the ambiguity your respondents complain about could be resolved if only you could choose the correct pronoun: this or that.

It is more likely that the anaphoric this or that standing alone are inherently ambiguous if they refer back to a long stretch of discourse. The problem can be alleviated if you add a noun: This criticism shows ... This concept has not yet ... . That assumption has proved ... .

For more information you might want to do a search on "the unattended anaphoric this". For example: Attended/unattended this in academic student writing .


That is a definite pronoun and should not be used to indicate an elaborate thought, a previous sentence or entire paragraph. "That' used at the beginning of a sentence or anywhere, refers to the closest preceding noun.

I am aware that that is often used that way, that is why the use of that is so confusing. I believe that that is the most overused word that is in the English language. I once received a student paper that had that used one hundred and five times in two pages.

This same rule applies to the pronoun,"it" It was a great and glorious dawn. Better.The dawn rose bright and glorious.

Many forget that "it" and "that" are pronouns and require antecedents to which they must refer.

  • Even your sentance saying " I am aware that that is often used that way, that is why..." In this case you are using the word 'that' to refer to an idea (noun) in my entire article =) Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 19:43
  • Even you used the word "This" in your third paragraph as a pronoun to the idea of your second paragraph. Antecedents is a great word to support my point: a thing or event that existed before or logically precedes another. This word antecedents, supports flexible direction of where the noun is located that the pronoun is referring to. I would agree " that" refers to the closest noun, but I also argue a noun can be unspoken or supplied in more than a single word. - Is that not so? Again I am still learning how to do commas properly, so please consider my questions as respectful curiosity. Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 20:04
  • 1
    Ryan, I did it to make a point. Didn't you notice there were four "that"s in the sentence? In third sentence I used the pronoun "this" but it refers to "rule", which doesn't precede it in this case, but is the closest noun. A noun can be unspoken, but the reason we have rules about pronouns and antecedents is to make the language less, not more confusing. "That", used as the first word of a sentence is normally confusing to the reader. Often the writer will understand the meaning, but it will escape the reader. (Notice I used "it" referring to "meaning"
    – Tim Mears
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 16:52
  • Roger, the third word (that) in your sentence, "I assume that. . ." is a perfect example of the misuse of "that". leave it out of the sentence and the sentence means exactly the same thing.
    – Tim Mears
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 16:58
  • I am not arguing in favor of over-usage. My search is for the substance of the rules, as so far I seem to be following them correctly. It is definitely not trivial. Most readers these days,especially in the United States, are easily confused by arguments. I noticed some time ago the pronouns were key.Take a Russian you may have seen in a movie saying in English " this is good"; a search for context is a mental exercise, which seems demised in education. I respect precision of language as paramount, however to understand science and policy implications are still a must. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 16:27

I feel this is not just a comment as I am adding to the answer I believe is apart of the question I asked.

Toward the original intent of my question the selected answer does do it perfectly. My original title was "The directionality of 'This'", which is solved best by what was suggested. However, as I got to writing the question it became more about distinct usage differences between 'this' and 'that' in terms of girth in which the pronoun is servicing. giggity.

I was trying to convince myself it was unnecessary to emphasises context within 1 limited word following the pronoun. Proper in traditional grammar or not I felt strongly a person, place, thing, or idea was a noun; whether or not condensed to single word.

This element, this idea, this component; all well n good options, but I wanted to guide the reader to hold onto a mental picture of details better where no proper noun was available. Rather than being distracted or even misled by my artful noun choice.

I suppose if someone has that delicate of focus then it cannot be helped to be required to go beyond worrying about an 'extra' noun and reiterate entirely.


I assume that the success of your explanations does not depend on your use of this and that. There can be a lot of causes if you don't get across what you want to convey. It is a matter of didactic methods and this art is not developed very high.


Perhaps one was writing a fictional passage describing the appearance of a unicorn in a mythological forest of one's own invention. If, in a following paragraph, one wishes to use "this" or "that", one should use a tag with the pronoun, In this case one could perhaps say "this apparition" or "this" wonder, if one is speaking generally or "That" wonder if wishing to be more specific (referring to that particular sighting) (notice my use of "that" with "sighting".)

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