Proper Uses of Demonstrative Determiners

This and that, as well as their plural forms, these and those, are known as DEMONSTRATIVE DETERMINERS when they modify a head noun.

This and that modify singular count nouns and noncount nouns, as demonstrated in 1a) and 1b), respectively.

These and those modify only plural count nouns, as shown in 1c), and cannot be used to modify noncount nouns as shown in 1d).

Meanwhile, note that this/that and these/those can also function as pronouns. In this case, are called Demonstrative PronounsOpens in new window.


The meaning distinction between this/these and that/those applies to four dimensions. The first of these is physical distance. This/these refer to something close to the speaker, and that/those refer to something more distant.

This distinction is commonly taught in English language courses using sentences such as 2), where it is clear that this indicates a lamp that is close by and that indicates another lamp that is more distant from the speaker.

An extension of this distinction can be made to the dimension of time. In 3), the two sets of demonstrative determiners refer to more distant in time vs. more immediate in time.

That/those refer to something that happened more recently. The speaker in 3a) is referring to the previous summer, but in 3b), the speaker is referring to a summer in the more distant past.

A third dimension in which the two sets of determiners have a meaning distinction is information packaging.

Noun phrasesOpens in new window with this/these often introduce new information, particularly in nonreferential/existential thereOpens in new window constructions, as illustrated in 4).

Nonreferential ThereOpens in new window constructions are treated in more depth here Opens in new window.

The use of this/these to introduce new information is not limited to nonreferential there structures, as illustrated in 5), where it is clear that the speaker’s intentions is to convey something new to the listener.

NPs with that/those constitute information that the speaker presumes is familiar to the listener.

The speaker in 6) uses those because he or she believes the listener knows what “knock-knock” jokes are and that Carl is in the habit of telling them.


The two sets of demonstrative determiners also divide on a dimension of relevance: high relevance/low relevance. This/that precede head nouns that have high relevance for the speaker.

In 7a), this and an intensifying adjective, terrible, precede the head noun crime, signaling that it has particular relevance for the speaker.

In 7b), there is no particular reason to assign special focus to the head noun crime, and this is signaled by the use of that.

Alternatively, the speaker could have used the pronoun it to indicate a lack of focus, as is the case in 7c).

The examples in 7a) and 7b) show this and that being used anaphorically, that is, the NPs they appear in refer back to something mentioned previously.

The adjectives and degree adverbs that occur with this tend to be attention-getting exaggerations (really, wild, strange, gigantic) that are designed to “summon the attention” of the reader to the head noun.

Conversely, the kinds of modifiers that occur with that (specific, classic, traditional) tend to be much more neutral in emotional content. This contrast is shown in 8).

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That/those are often used before a head noun in academic prose and in newspaper writing to define a concept or specify a class of people or things for the reader. This is a special stylistic use of that/those, in which a relative clause following the head noun supplies the definition or characterization of the concept or class.

In 9a), we have a typical academic definition, whereas in 9b), the editor of the Manchester Guardian uses those to designate a specific group of readers who did not receive the paper.

In both sentences, the relative clause is enclosed in brackets. Note also that in each case that/those could be replaced a definite article.

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