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4. Demonstrative Pronouns

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  Ed Good  —  Grammar Tips
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Four Important Words: This, That, These, and Those

These four words can serve as demonstrative pronouns or as demonstrative adjectives.

This, That, These, Those - Pronouns

We have four demonstrative pronouns in our language: this and that and their plurals these and those. When these words act as subjects or objects, that is, when they replace a noun, they are called demonstrative pronouns.

This, That, These, Those - Adjectives

But they can also act as adjectives when they accompany a noun. They are then called demonstrative adjectives. Let’s see some examples of each use.

Demonstrative Pronouns

This is where he works. That is a very bad idea. These are the times that try men’s souls. Those were the days, my friends.

Demonstrative Adjectives

This issue has troubled us in the past. That approach will fail. These cases should resolve the controversy. Those packages arrived late.

This vs. That, These vs. Those

People often ask about the differences between this and that, and these and those. The words this and its plural these refer to people, objects, or ideas close in time or space, while that and its plural those refer to people, objects, or ideas more remote in time or space. For example:

That game last night was more exciting than this one tonight.

The close-in-space factor can measure the proximity of the referent in the writing itself. Thus, you might refer to these issues just discussed as compared with those issues mentioned in the introduction.

Used as Subjects

When you use demonstrative pronouns as subjects or objects, beware the problem of vagueness. Make certain the pronoun has an identifiable referent—either a noun or a specific idea. Too often writers ignore this rule. Read the following passage written by a federal court and figure out what these refers to:

Officials at [border] checkpoints . . . have been granted increasingly intrusive power in connection with the search of vehicles at these checkpoints, without any requirement of probable cause. These include the power to stop and question occupants about aliens and to search in automobile cavities that could conceal aliens. United States v. Oyarzun, 760 F.2d 570, 577 (5th Cir. 1985).

We can, of course, figure out that the plural these was meant to refer to the singular power. But the lack of care momentarily threw us off base.

Also beware the writing instructor who says that a demonstrative pronoun, when used as a subject or object, must always be accompanied by a noun. The advice is not only wrong but definitionally impossible: How can a demonstrative pronoun be accompanied by a noun? It can’t. If it is, then it’s no longer a pronoun but a demonstrative adjective.

All great writers use this or that or these or those as subjects. They simply make sure the word has an identifiable referent. Perhaps they use this test: When they use the word this as the subject of a sentence, they ask themselves:

This what?

If the answer readily comes to mind, the usage is sound. You’ll find this approach suggested in Garner Legal, p. 260 and Garner Oxford, p. 259.

The use of this as a subject works in this passage by an esteemed professor at Harvard Law School:

In civilized society men must be able to assume that they may control, for purposes beneficial to themselves, what they have discovered and appropriated to their own use, what they have created by their own labor, and what they have acquired under the existing social and economic order. This is a jural postulate of civilized society as we know it. Roscoe Pound, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law, p. 108 (1922; repr. 1975) (quoted in Garner Legal, p. 260).

(Law professors love to talk about “jural postulates.”) In the passage, the word this refers to the entire idea: People can cash in on stuff they create. The reader immediately knows what the professor is referring to and does not have to rummage around in the preceding sentences in search of the word or idea he had in mind.

Now for some real fun, the relative pronouns: that, which, who, whoever, whom, whomever, and whose.


Previous: “Each”

Next: 5. Relative Pronouns

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