I read from somewhere a long time ago that "that" refers to something that was mentioned earlier, while "this" refers to something that is going to be mentioned. But I saw some examples where "this" refers to something that was just mentioned earlier, and I was not sure if the examples were correct. What are the correct usage of "this" and "that"?

Note that I am not talking about the other meanings of "this" and "that" in terms of long or short distance from the speaker, but about their meanings in terms of referring to something in the context.


1 Answer 1


You are right about "this" refers to something is going to be mentioned. But we can use both "this" and "that" (and actually "it" too) to refer to something that was mentioned earlier too.

Here is an excerpt from a couple of entries in Practical English Usage by Michael Swan,

590.1 referring back

This, that and it can all be used to refer back to things or situations that have just been talked or written about. It does not give any special emphasis.

This and that are more emphatic; they 'shine a light', so to speak, on the things or situations, suggesting 'an interesting new fact has been mentioned'.
"So she decided to paint her house pink. This/That really upset the neighbours, as you can imagine."

This is preferred when there is more to say about the new subject of discussion.
"So she decided to paint her house pink. This upset the neighbours so much that they took her to court, believe it or not. The case came up last week ..."

590.4 referring forward

Only this can refer forward to something that has not yet been mentioned.
"Now what do you think about this? I thought I'd get a job in Spain for six months, and then ? (NOT Now what do you think about that/it ...)"

  • 1
    Unfortunately, Peter Swan neglects to explore why "it really upset the neighbours" would not be effective. The hypothesis about this and that being emphatic does not help explain it. I believe that "this" and "that" refer to clauses, whereas "it" can refer to clauses and to objects. Because of this broader possibility, "it" can create ambiguities that do not exist with "this" or "that". For instance, "this" or "that" by themselves could never refer to "house", whereas "it" could be mistaken as referring to "house". "this" can only refer to "house" if we say "this house".
    – Kaz
    Dec 5, 2013 at 1:48
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    For instance, "I removed the wrapper from the chocolate bar and threw { *this | *that | it | that wrapper } away".
    – Kaz
    Dec 5, 2013 at 1:50
  • To be fair to Swan, he discusses this in 590.2 more than one thing: "When more than one thing has been mentioned, it generally refers to a new subject of discussion; this and that generally refer to a new subject that has been introduced (often the last thing mentioned). Compare: We keep the ice-cream machine in the spare room. It/This/That is mainly used by the children, incidentally." Swan said, when using it, the meaning will be "The machine is used by the children"; when using this or that, the meaning will be "The spare room is used by the children". Dec 5, 2013 at 2:06

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