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“… things like this.” vs. “… things like that.”

I have two sentences for both this and that.

  1. This is what bothers me: we have no time to consider late applications.
  2. The letter was unopened; that in itself casts doubt on the inspector's theory.

Does it mean that this must always be used before its referent, while that always after its referent? Any idea is appreciated.

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, kiamlaluno, James Waldby - jwpat7, tchrist, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Aug 31 '12 at 13:53

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    I think both sentences would remain correct if you changes this to that or vice versa – Armen Ծիրունյան Aug 2 '12 at 13:44
  • 'Always' is too strong. In the particular context of referring to -sentences-, in sentence 1, changing 'this' to 'that' would presume you were talking about late applications already and you are restating it. In sentence 2, either 'this' or 'that' work fine. – Mitch Aug 2 '12 at 14:39

In the present question (I am trying to avoid the use of the words this or that), this conveys a closeness and that a distance.

Where you have not introduced an issue, but are about to, the referent which this is associated with is close, immediately following. That would be used where the referent has already been introduced — it is not immediately out of your mouth following the relative pronoun. it is a bit further away.

There are circumstances where the definition referent might follow that. Where someone has said something foolish, the response might be:

That is what I am talking about! Another ill-informed voter!

In the illustration, the pronoun that is really referring to a previously observed behavior or statement, and the referent explanation is really an analysis of the slightly distant (previous) action.

Notwithstanding the above explanation, the terms are often used, even in this context, interchangably and probably would not be considered incorrect.

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    Lamentably, ill informed voters seldom vote, while ill-informed ones do so. – tchrist Aug 2 '12 at 13:58
  • +1 for tchrist. I didn't notice till I saw your comment and burst out laughing :D – asymptotically Aug 2 '12 at 14:02
  • I am both fast an inaccurate as a typist and always welcome edits (weak in spelling and hyphenation too). – bib Aug 2 '12 at 14:03
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    @bib I think you mean "fast AND inaccurate". :-) – Jay Aug 2 '12 at 17:57
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    This is a perfect example of that which makes this site useful! – Bob Aug 2 '12 at 17:57

I find it helpful to consider that both "this" and "that" have conventions, that come from their position in a sentence, and the joining words which come immediately before and after them. When used in close proximity, this and that provide a "left hand" and "right hand" to the reader. "This on the one hand" versus "That, on the other hand", is implied.

But when not used in close proximity, there are other rules. And there is not one simple way to tell which of the two would be correct.

"This is why" and "That is why" are mutually interchangeable, but "That which" and "This which" are not.

"That which does not kill you makes you stronger" is considered idiomatic, and "This which does not kill you makes you stronger" is awkward because people expect "that which", and "this which" is awkward or at least not in common usage.

I gave a specific example, but I think I could give a few hundred more.

In short, in many places they are interchangeable, and in many, many more, they are not interchangeable, and the sense of distance (this=closer, that=farther) is not even a rough guide, because the usage is, as often happens, kind of random and established not through logical rules but by arbitrary patterns of usage.

It is very easy to say something awkward if you don't follow the established patterns, "this" and "that" have sense or contextual-meaning based on the words around them, and the idiomatic senses that these words gather from the words immediately before and after them.

I studied Hindi language, and the language has some words like "jo" (जो) and "to" ( तो )which had sense or meaning, only as part of larger phrases. After studying hindi, and puzzling over the lack of sense in the word by itself, I realized that the same is true, although to a lesser degree in the case of "this" and "that", of many small words in English, and French, and in perhaps, every human language.

I wonder if there is a word for a pair of words, like "this and that", or "hither and yon" that while not opposites, are complementary, like salt and pepper.

  • That would be hither and thither. – tchrist Aug 3 '12 at 0:54
  • Thank you Warren, I've upvoted your detailed answer. Hope you can keep on helping other people like me. – macio.Jun Aug 3 '12 at 12:43

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