6

I am not a native speaker myself and would like to inquire about a particular usage of "this".

Here's an example from the Corpus of Contemporary American English https://www.english-corpora.org/coca/ : "Anyway, the first mistake I made was I thought the finger bowl was the soup. So I went to get my spoon and to go to the finger bowl and this lady nicely said, that's not the soup. I said, oh, OK.".

My question is: how is "this" understood in the context above (highlighted with bold)? It seems, from the broader context, that it occurs for the first time in the narration, so is it correct that it can be substituted with "a/an" in this context? How frequent is this phenomenon? Is there a special condition for using "this" in that way in narration?

5
  • 1
    "This" is not an article. The articles are "a" and "the". "This" is a demonstrative determinative functioning as a determiner. Normally "this" marks a noun as definite, but in your example it's a 'false' definite', in that it has the form of a definite NP but it doesn't satisfy the conditions for the felicitous use of one. False definites introduce new entities into the discourse but don't have sufficient content to identify the referent for the addressee. It is of course characteristic of very informal conversation, some speakers preferring to use "a" or "some".
    – BillJ
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 11:37
  • If you're satisfied that my message answers your question, I'll post it as an answer
    – BillJ
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 11:53
  • Yes, thank you! Is there some article which explores the topic of false definites?
    – skybrod
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 11:53
  • I've looked, but couldn't find anything other than this: link. Note that the author uses the term 'article' but that is not acceptable in English, with the term "determinative" being used for the demonstrative "this".
    – BillJ
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 12:09
  • There is such a thing as "indefinite this". See among many others The cataphoric use of the indefinite this in spoken narratives and the 77page pdf Indefinite this and the Givenness Hierarchy. I also suggest you search for "Givenness Hierarchy" which posits a range of eight different ways make a reference to something. Commented May 31, 2017 at 1:52

4 Answers 4

2

While the demonstrative "this" is not semantically the same as an indefinite article, it has some similarities in the sense that both can be used to introduce a new topic/object to the discourse.

For example, if I say "I want this shirt" and point to a shirt, it generally means I haven't mentioned the shirt before, whereas the statement "I want the shirt" implies that before I made my statement, you should have already been able to know which shirt I had in mind.

Perhaps this is what led to the use of "this" in examples like the one you mention, to introduce something that is not physically present and can't be pointed to, but that is being introduced in the course of the narrative.

I can't think of any very obvious restrictions on its use. I think that generally, it would imply that you are going to continue to talk about the introduced thing, or at least something related to it, more strongly than the indefinite article would: if I say "there was a dog walking down the street" it might just be a description of an area, but if I say "there was this dog walking down the street" it is likely that I am about to say something else about the dog, or at least related to it.

I guess "this" can't replace non-specific "a": "I want a hot dog" is not generally equivalent to "I want this hot dog." "I want this hot dog" would mean "There's a particular hot dog (or a particular type of hot dog) that I want" while "I want a hot dog" would generally mean "I want any hot dog."

1

Let me tell you this.

In the context of your quote (this lady) and my utterance above, this only has to be definite to the speaker. It doesn't have to be definite to the listener.

Your confusion arises from the erroneous assumption that this has to be definite to the listener as well as to the speaker. Unfortunately, most grammars are based on this erroneous assumption.

-3

Disclaimer
I am talking about definite and indefinite articles, and that is not fully correct. As per BillJ's comment:

"This" is a demonstrative determinative functioning as a [definite] determiner. (the [definite] was later edited out by BillJ)

However, it is my opinion that, while BillJ is correct, I am better off omitting this information. The sole focus of my explanation is the differentiation between definite and indefinite. Whether we're talking about articles or determiners is functionally irrelevant because the differentiation between definite and indefinite remains unchanged.

I am omitting this detail in order to keep the examples simple and understandable. In the scope of my explanation, I am occasionally adding "article" because omitting a noun would require my phrasing to become unnecessarily obtrusive.


"This" is not being used as an indefinite article . It is definitive, because it specifically talks about this woman (not just a woman in general).

(Edit the above is not quite true. Reason 3 is an exception to this)

A woman walked in. (indefinite, it doesn't talk about a specific woman)
The woman walked in. (definite, it is talking about a specific woman)
This woman walked in. (definite, it is talking about a specific woman)

There are three cases in which you can use "this" instead of "the". I think the third case is the correct one for your current example.


Reason 1: I am explaining something and am also using gestures to point out different things.

Let me teach you how to play chess. This piece [points at king] is the king. This piece [points at queen] is the queen. This piece...

It makes more sense when you see the person gesturing. It doesn't really translate well to a written form, because without the gesturing, you don't know how to tell which piece he's talking about.

Unless you of course add his gestures in brackets, which is what I did.


Reason 2: It is used to say that the woman is a specific type of person (usually but not always a stereotype).

I hate arrogant people. I was at work in my shoe store, and this guy walks in, looking at me as if I am his butler.

In this context, this guy is a shortened version of this type of guy. "This type" then refers back to the type of people I was just talking about (arrogant people).

Note: You can also omit the initial statement:

I was at work in my shoe store, and this guy walks in, with a smug look on his face and looking at me as if I am his butler.

Although you never really specified what type of guy walked in, you are still implying that "this" guy is a special type of person, and the rest of your story will explain what type of person he is.
In my example, you can infer that I mean this guy as "this type of arrogant person, who is smug and acts superior".


Reason 3 : A person who up until this points has been indefinite, is now becoming definite.

I was working at the restaurant. There was a woman sitting at a table. This woman was clearly feeling sick. It didn't take long for the woman to sprint to the bathroom and throw up.

Do you notice how the woman, at the start of my story, was indefinite? That is because she was just one of many patrons. But once I started talking about [...] woman clearly feeling sick, I was talking about this specific woman, not just any of the patrons.

This is usually how you start talking about something. You state its existence using an indefinite article ("There was a woman sitting there."). You then refer to them using "this", to indicate that you are now specifically talking about this woman, not a woman ("This woman was feeling sick").
After you have established that, you can use the definite article (the) to continue your story, because you alraedy indicated that "this woman" is the topic of conversation at the moment.

"This woman" then inherently means "the woman I just pointed out".

13
  • "This" is being used as an indefinite article, exactly as the OP thought. It's a colloquialism.
    – AndyT
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 10:54
  • @AndyT: But he is talking about a specific woman. Specifically, the woman who spoke to him. The woman who, up until now in the conversation, hadn't been identified (therefore remaining indefinite). I see no possible way in which the story about that woman can continue without using a definite article.
    – Flater
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 10:59
  • To maybe correct my phrasing: "this" (in reason 3) isn't particularly definite or indefinite, but it implies the transition from indefinite to definite. After using "this", there is no way to avoid using a definite article when talking about the woman (this sentence proves the point).
    – Flater
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 11:02
  • 1
    Look at your example from reason 3: "There was a woman sitting at a table". You're talking a specific woman here, the one who was sitting at a table. And yet you were able to use the indefinite article. Using the colloquialism, it would start with "There was this woman sitting at a table."
    – AndyT
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 11:02
  • 1
    I'd put it like this: "This" is a demonstrative determinative functioning as a determiner. Normally "this" marks a noun as definite, but in the OP's example it's a false definite in that it has the form of a definite NP but it doesn't satisfy the conditions for the felicitous use of one. False definites introduce new entities into the discourse but don't have sufficient content to identify the referent for the addressee. It is of course characteristic of very informal conversation, some speakers preferring to use "a" or "some".
    – BillJ
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 11:29
-4

Never you mind any demonstrative determinatives functioning as determiners, which you must realise the great majority of English speakers wouldn’t understand if their lives depended on it.

If you asked most native English speakers what was meant by an article they would first start telling you about shopping. Those same uncounted millions use this and that and even the other as articles all day, every day, and that includes both whoever you define as native or non-native speakers.

Doubtless millions of pin-dancers would love to pretend that’s not true, or it doesn’t matter, but sadly for them the language doesn’t work that way and basically, if huge numbers of people think it looks like a duck, walks like duck and squawks like a duck, why should we call it a vulture?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.