I understand that "the" and "that" are both used to refer to a specific subject or object. But are there general rules of thumb to explain when we should use "the" and when we should use "that"? Examples: Both of these sentences are grammatical, but when one should be used instead of the other?

The king and his followers visit many poor villages.

That king and his followers visit many poor villages.

  • 2
    Just wanted to chime in that 'the' vs 'that' can be particularly troublesome depending on the native language you're coming from. In my experience, English learners from Romance language backgrounds don't have much trouble with the proper discrimimation, but Chinese students overuse 'this' and 'that' (the 这个 / 那个 construction is used more frequently). I therefore recommend my Chinese students try 'the' if they are ever unsure of which to use purely to counteract misleading intuition. (Not leaving this as a full answer as it has no 'why' response) Oct 4, 2017 at 5:25

5 Answers 5


At a very basic level, that is the verbal counterpart to pointing at something in order to focus another person's attention on it in particular, so that the person does not mistake something else similar to it for it, or so that the person understands that the one being pointed at is different from others which may seem similar to it.

If you win a stuffed animal at a carnival, for example, you might say to the carny "No, I want that one." and mean thereby that you want a specific one, perhaps the one next to the one the carny was reaching for.

The, in contrast to that, refers to a particular thing the speaker has in mind.The is not so overt; the does not direct the other person's attention towards something.

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    note though that "that" contrasts with "this"; "this" is something which is closer to the speaker and "that" is something closer to the audience/other.
    – eques
    Oct 3, 2017 at 13:23
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    @eques. That's correct, but is only part of the story. My answer addresses the OP's question about "that" versus "the".
    – TimR
    Oct 3, 2017 at 13:29
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    yes, but it's a part of the story you fail to address. The statement "counterpart to pointing at something in order to focus another's attention" implies that would encompass that use entirely, but in reality "this" also covers that usage, but in a slightly different case
    – eques
    Oct 3, 2017 at 13:37
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    @eques. This points at something close. That points at something distant. They both point. I'm talking about the difference between pointing and not pointing, not about "close" and "far". There is no implication that that is the only pointing word.
    – TimR
    Oct 3, 2017 at 13:41
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    "The X": there is no other X that I could be referring to within the context of my statement. "That X": there are other X that I could be referring to within the context of my statement.
    – 2rs2ts
    Oct 4, 2017 at 17:39

"The" and "that" share the same etymology. They both come from the same Old English demonstrative pronoun/adjective (Old English didn't distinguish "the" and "that", but that word was flected by grammatical gender and case):

│Masculine│Feminime │Neuter   │Plural   │
│se       │seo      │þæt      │þa       │
Full table is available here.

So "the" and "that" came from merely one Old English word, just "the" from its masculine form ("se", which later turned into "the") and "that" — from its neuter form ("þæt", which later turned into "that"). Of course, nowadays that gender-based distinction is lost.

As for the modern usage of "the" and "that", this article says:

  • "That" is generally more specific or emphatic than "the", but in some cases they are interchangeable.
  • "That" can be used as opposite of "this" ("that" for something farther, "this" for something closer).
  • "That" is used in some standard phrases, e.g. "that way", "that-a-way".

If we're talking not only about "the/that + <some noun>" usage, but also about other usage types:

  • "The": in "the older the better"/"the more I think about it, the stronger my doubts become"-like phrases.
  • "That":
    • without any following word, e.g. "I've seen that" (while we can't say "I've seen the");
    • before adjective, with meaning "to that [implied or previously said] extent/degree" (e.g. "I'm that old");
    • as a conjunction.
  • Why down-votes: are there any mistakes?
    – Sasha
    Oct 3, 2017 at 13:36

In my opinion "The" is singular. The King is watching TV. Whereas "That" gives the idea of more than one. Which King is watching TV? That King (on the throne) is watching TV. Or if you only have one dog you would not say That dog is hungry (you only have one dog so what other dog could it be?). The dog is hungry would suffice.

  • 2
    I think I understand you when you say that that "gives the idea of more than one". There is a need to point him out, to focus attention on him in particular (and not on some other king).
    – TimR
    Oct 3, 2017 at 12:00
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    "The" can be used for plural nouns though. "The leaders..."
    – eques
    Oct 3, 2017 at 13:52
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    @eques In that case, it's the same thing for "the" vs "those"
    – Kevin
    Oct 3, 2017 at 17:42
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    Point being that "the is singular" is not a correct assertion. The vs that is not related to plurality, but specificity.
    – eques
    Oct 3, 2017 at 17:46
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    If I understand this answer correctly, Margie is not saying diddly about grammatical agreement in number. The answer is speaking to the semantics of that which points out a thing often (not always) because the intent is to single it out amidst other things of its ilk.
    – TimR
    Oct 3, 2017 at 20:05

Something that you might find useful is to think of the pair of words "this and that". Generally, when talking about two things, the closer or first one is "this", and further or second one is "that".

So "that" is used to distinguish two similar things from one another. For example, when comparing two cars: "This car is very affordable, while that car is very fast."

Your sentence "That king and his followers visit many poor villages" makes me think that there is a context to it that is missing. For instance, "This king sits on this throne all day and gives proclamations on how great his kingdom is, while that king and his followers visit..."

Like above, "that" would be used to specify which of two, or which of a set, and as such, it's typically used when turning to talk about the second of two or a group.


The seems to refer to All entity/entities being referenced. As in the example "The king" it is understood that there is only the one king, but it notes every (instance? example?) of kings which is understood within the statement in which it is made. "The leaders" refers to every member in a group of leaders, of which there is implied only the single group, at least in this context.

That appears to call out a particular party (size 1+) within a larger group, and splits them from the (desires, actions, etc) of the rest of the group, usually for purposes of self. For examples: That faction (of some group) wants (not consistent with the desires of the whole), or That one guy (out of potentially any/all guys known, or unknown) did XYZ. Others might have also done any of X, or Y, or Z, or even some combination thereof, but we don't care about them, because we are only discussing a single person and their actions in this example.

Truth be told, I'm just making this up as I go, so I'm sure there are all sorts of flaws people can find in this. Still, after reading other responses, this appears to be the best summation I can think of, at this time.

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