As I understand, in English, when we are talking about something so close that we can (literally or figuratively) point our finger to, we can use "this".

This cake is great. (implies the participants are near the cake)

If we are talking about something that is not very close, or the place/time is not very specific, we can use "that".

That cake is great. (implies the cake is far away)

In my native language (Portuguese), a translation would be "isto" ("this") and "aquilo" ("that").

The problem is that there are many instances of English sentences using "that" that I would use "isto" in my native language instead. For example:

A: Let's eat some cake.
B: That would be great.

I understand that translations may not perfectly capture the nuances of different languages. My question is if using "this" would be OK in that instance. More generally, is English more lax regarding the use "this" and "that" ("isto" and "aquilo" are very strict in Portuguese).

P.S: my question is essentially the same one as this one, but the accepted answer does not really answers the issue of using both words interchangeably (I'm looking for a yes/no answer).

  • An obvious case is the choice between "Who is this, please?" and "Who is that, please?" when answering a telephone call where the caller has not given their name. So 'Yes'. But that's not a decent ELU answer. In your first two examples, this and that are used before the noun, as deictic positional determiners/determinatives (proximal and distal, respectively.) But in your third example, the pronoun 'that' is used to mean 'That procedure' or less stuffily 'Doing that'. 'This' is sometimes used to refer to proceedings / circumstances etc "What a good plan! Yes, this sounds fine." Jan 3, 2021 at 15:36
  • @EdwinAshworth: "Why does this interest you?" vs "Why does that interest you?" Explain that!
    – Ricky
    Jan 3, 2021 at 20:36
  • 1
    Are we having tit for tat?
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 3, 2021 at 21:03
  • 1
    Dis, dat, and de other ting?
    – John Canon
    Jan 3, 2021 at 21:03
  • 1
    @Ricky Both totally acceptable; the first indicates that the questioner identifies with the issue fairly closely, while the second indicates a distancing (either felicitous, or an attempt to divert the questionee away from the issue). Jan 4, 2021 at 16:42


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