Explain the use of demonstrative pronouns 'this' and 'that'


How does one know whether to use the following?

This simply isn’t true.
That simply isn’t true.

I was trying to reason that it might be arbitrary. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with time. If I respond to a false comment with: “This simply isn’t true” or “That simply isn’t true” are they both valid? Is one better than the other? Does it have to do with prioritizing ‘this’ over ‘that’. ‘This’ (first statement) is false. ‘That’ (next statement) is also false.
I’m not sure how to explain the different usages of ‘this’ and ‘that’.
I look forward to your feedback.

Well, if you’re thinking of written language–especially more formal writing–you might want to look at research such as this articlefrom the journal Discourse Processes, but it’s kind of long and academic.

I sense that you might be wondering about something more general about this linguistic phenomenon, (formally referred to as deixis). There is an affective dimension to this and that which is often overlooked in English language texts that simply explain the difference as one of physical distance. The affective use of these words, however, is often used to communicate psychological or emotional affinity or distance to the referent. So when people see a public figure on TV they tend to say:*I really like this guy.butI really hate that guy.*So when someone says:*This simply isn’t true.*they are communicating–for whatever reasons–less affective distance from the referent, which is presumably a proposition in the immediately preceding discourse. Perhaps it is a proposition they once also asserted, or in some way were connected to.

By the same token, That simply isn’t true. would be spoken when the speaker wishes to communicate less connection with the immediately preceding proposition. Perhaps it is an idea he or she has always opposed, etc.

Or for a more knee-jerk and less intellectually rigorous version of the same idea … I would expect “this” to follow a statement from the speaker themselves (“Some say the moon is mad of green cheese. This simply isn’t true”) and “that” to follow someone else’s statement (“Did you know that Elvis is living in a billion dollar mansion in Argentina with Hitler’s clone and an army of flying bonobos?” “That simply isn’t true”). The idea again being that you are somewhat ‘distanced’ from somebody else’s statement, but not from your own - even if the statement was something you disagreed with

You’re all a bunch of dick-dicks.

I would add to the above that in some contexts it does have something to do with time. Compare “This is how you do it” to “That is how you do it”. The first you would say before or during a demonstration, the second after.

Excellent observation! Time in language is often expressed in fundamentally spatial terms. In English, do we perceive something we’re going to say as “closer” (because we’re “approaching” it, so we’ll soon be “there”), but something we* just said* as “farther” (because it’s “receding” “away” from us into the past)? Seems so.

That is a very good question. (Note that sentence doesn’t work so well with “this”. (Nor does that one.))

It could very well work with this.

When someone enters a thread for the first time and says, “This is a very good question,” it generally is referring to (the question in) the OP itself. It shows psychological proximity because the poster is new to the discussion and (usually) indicating that he or she has just read the OP only, and is giving a response to the the general topic (not the previous poster).

At least OP didn’t ask this question about Thai which has no less than eight similar words to fill the roles of this and that! In fact, I’m posting in hopes a linguist will explain this to me!

นี้ /ni:/ นั้น /nan/ นู้น /nu:n/ โน้น /no:n/

นี่ /ni:/ นั่น /nan/ นู่น /nu:n/ โน่น /no:n/

The first two words above are the most common this and that. The third word is sometimes used as the 3rd form .in a context like ‘the bird here, the bird there, the bird way over yonder.’ The fourth word may be roughly synonymous with the third. The four words in the second row have a different tone than the first row (falling instead of high) and … emphasize that physical distance is the context(?). (I hope this is accurate: my informants are away from their desks! :slight_smile: )

(Thai this/that seem similar to the roots for this/that (/ini/, /ian/) alleged for proto-Austronesian. I’m probably over-reaching but this might be compatible with the hypothesis that Daic (the language family containing Thai) derives from a Filipino or Formosan language which, long ago, migrated to mainland China and then underwent major mutations.)

It’s whether the thing you’re referring to is more or less approximate to your self.

This and that refer to things that are right here or further away.

Here and there refer to places that are right here or further away.

Now and then refer to times that are right here or further away.

Japanese is similar to Thai. For example, “koko”, “soko”, “asoko”, “doko”. They basically mean “here”, “there”, “way over there”, and “where?”.

“Kono” and “sono” are adjectives that mean “this” and “that”, and seem to follow the same rules as English, but I was taught that they’re based pretty much exclusively on proximity. Especially with “asono” which describes something relatively far away, something you couldn’t point at.

This and that, like many pairs of words (such as underpass and overpass) reflect the perspective of the speaker., as he wishes to convey it. One who uses either term is merely indicating that the referent is either relatively near of far to himself, in time or space.

As I used to explain to my TEFL students, use 'hope" for the possible, “wish” for the impossible, and your choice of words reflects your own evaluation of the possibility.

Thank guizot. This answer works for me personally. Do grammarians have a terms for this relative ‘psychological’ proximity as used in formal writing?

“Deictic proximity” or “logocentricity”?

Thanks JKellyMap. Thank you all. Very helpful.

Well, yes, as mentioned above, that’s the standard textbook explanation, but it doesn’t really address the OP, which is something apart from time and space. The standard textbook explanations don’t touch upon the affective dimension of this.

There’s a great article from a while back which discusses the grammaticalization of affect, by Elenor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin, called “Language Has a Heart”. It’s cross-linguistic, and includes references to other languages, such as how in Spanish diminutive morphology is used to be more polite, similarly to how, in English, past tense forms are used to be more polite, etc.

That link doesn’t work for me (or rather it asks $42 for the 14-page article). Here’s another link.

The article would be more interesting to me if it gave more examples from languages I was familiar with.Thai and Japanese use an adversative passive voice.
English “If only …” shows a positive attitude.Whippeee!