In the following two sentences, is there any difference in what "this" or "that" would indicate about the previous sentence? Would one of them be less accurate than the other?

We may run out of gasoline before the finish line. This would create a problem that isn't easily resolved.

We may run out of gasoline before the finish line. That would create a problem that isn't easily resolved.

I suspect that "that" is more useful when referring to distant things or uncertainties, whereas "this" is more useful when referring to direct, actual instances of something, but I may be wrong.

I would like to know the difference between these two words in any given situation instead of merely knowing the correct usage for this one example that I've provided.

  • When you have not yet run out of gasoline (as of the time of making this statement), there is no "this," only what could happen in future, which is "that". As simple as that.
    – Kris
    Jul 24, 2018 at 9:07
  • Are you implying that "that" should be used over "this" when referring to uncertainties? Jul 24, 2018 at 9:18
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    @Kris I think your categoric statement is incorrect. In the example, “this” is perfectly acceptable and is probably what I would use. It’s not about future vs present, it’s about the locus of the narrative. Jul 24, 2018 at 11:34
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    @Kris Your statement “No. ‘This’ cannot be used” sounded pretty categorical. What if the sentence were “This situation would create a problem...”? (Or replace with “scenario”, or “prospect”). Do you still think “this” cannot be used in such a context? Jul 24, 2018 at 12:15
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    I’ve tried saying each aloud. Interestingly, if I emphasise the word in bold, “that” seems to work better, but without the emphasis, “this” seems more natural. So, I think it comes down to style and intent. Jul 24, 2018 at 12:28

2 Answers 2


This and that are demonstratives and in this context, deictic. Either may be used, depending on whether you consider yourself near the first sentence (use this) or whether you have notionally moved away from it (use that).

Demonstratives (abbreviated DEM) are words, such as this and that, used to indicate which entities are being referred to and to distinguish those entities from others. They are typically deictic, their meaning depending on a particular frame of its reference. - wikipedia

  • -1 However, there's no deictic context here.
    – Kris
    Jul 24, 2018 at 9:58
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    +1. This here is exactly the issue at hand. That other view is incorrect. The locus of thought is everything: proximal vs distant. It’s not that either is “wrong”; rather, it’s the subtle impression the author is trying to convey. Jul 24, 2018 at 11:50
  • @Kris Are you saying that if you replaced the leading sentence, it doesn’t change what ‘this/that’ refers to?
    – Lawrence
    Jul 24, 2018 at 15:30

Hmmm. Interesting. Here’s a thought. I only set it as an answer because it is the only way I can fit it in! But I am far from confident int what follows.

You suggest ‘that’, when used to refer to a proposition just uttered, indicates something uncertain. It could be so.

To be or not to be: that is the question

It could not possibly be “this is the question”, could it? However, what about:

We will run out of gasoline: that is certain.”?

So ‘that’ can (should?) be used in contexts of both certainty and uncertainty.

So my thought is that we have here just an instance of a general rule of ‘this’ indicating greater proximity, either spatio-temporal or sentential-propositional, and ‘that’ indicating greater distance.

So, if I am certain, the gas issue is done with, not worth debating, so ‘over there’, I use ‘that’. if the question is still in play, I use ‘this’. It is, I admit, subjective.

This is what I am considering in this answer.

Aha! Here I felt I had to use ‘this’. And I felt I had to use ‘here’ rather than ‘there’. It remains in front of me.

The trouble is, ‘that’ could be used in the same context. You will still know what I mean. The only thing of which I am sure is that ‘this’ always comes after ‘that’. That cannot be doubted.

  • In the final sentence of my question, I also used "this" to refer to my example instead of "that" due to the nearness of the question. Are you implying that the only difference between "this" and "that" is that "this" precedes "that" in proximity to its reference? Jul 24, 2018 at 9:10

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