So, the question that's always been bugging me is:

What is the proper usage of "This" and "That", not when it comes to objects or things, but when it comes to concepts.

For example, there's a paragraph that goes in a way that's similar to this:

"Coconuts kill a small number of people every year, yet wars have consumed many more lives than coconuts during the long period of human existence.

That/This fact will not change anytime soon."

Another, simpler example, is:

"Who is That/This friend you're supposed to meet?"

The basic difference between That/This is that "This" refers to a thing which is nearby, and "That" to a thing which is farther away.

So, how do you use the two words when it touches such vague examples? Does it even matter? Or maybe it would have been This when the statement is inside the same paragraph, and That when it's in another?

  • 1
    'This' and 'that' are deictic. When the references are to near and further-off people / objects, as you say, it's pretty clear which to use. With this/that fact, the choice of this or that depends on how proximal the idea is in the speaker's head (that fact mentioned in my last sentence / this fact we're considering). Either is acceptable. The second example you mention depends to some extent on when the 'friend' was last mentioned, but I'd think 'this', then 'the', are more commonly used. Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 22:47
  • FYI, "a few number of people" is wrong; it should be either "a few people" or "a small number of people."
    – Kevin
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 23:13
  • @Clare It is, but Eric Brown's answer here deserves to be retained. Perhaps some mod could merge the two threads. Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 23:14

1 Answer 1


You're correct: "This" refers to a thing which is nearby, and "That" to a thing which is farther away.

However, distance in language can also indicate an emotional distance. For example, when sitting down with your family for dinner at home you might say, "Will you pass the salt?" But in a more formal setting where there is less intimacy, for example, a gala reception, you might ask someone, "Would you please pass the salt?" Instead of using the present tense in this setting (will), you use the past tense to convey a sense of formality. Rather than convey information about time itself, this temporal distance between present and past symbolizes a more distant or unattached relationship with your fellow diners.

In your example, "Who is That/This friend you're supposed to meet?" using "this" sounds much more friendly, curious and involved. Using "that" keeps the person at a distance and makes you sound much more detached, suspicious and aloof.

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