I've never understood what is the difference between the subject pronoun "it" and the demonstratives "this" and "that".

To be precise, I understand well the difference between those two demonstratives ("this" and "that"). "This" is used for when being close physically or when pointing on the object, and "that" is used for when the object is far or no pointing it. But I don't understand the difference between these two ("this" and "that") and the pronoun "it".

N.B. The same question I can ask about the pronoun "they" and the demonstratives "these" and "those", but in this case "they" is used both for human beings and all the rest, unlike the pronoun "it" which is used for everything except about human being.

diagram of demonstratives: this vs that, these vs those

  • RE: "this" is used for when being close physically or when pointing on the object, and "that" is used for when the object is far or no pointing it - I hope you realize that these two words are very flexible, and that guidance, while often true, doesn't fully capture all the ways these words can be used. Related: donut shop story.
    – J.R.
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 20:21
  • Interesting. I would like to know about the exceptions. B.t.w. what does it mean "RE:"? Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 20:35
  • RE is an informal way to say "in reply to". As for exceptions, I gave you one in my first comment: that guidance. (I didn't say that because the guidance was far away; in fact, I could have just as easily said this guidance.)
    – J.R.
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 20:37
  • 1
    Thank you. Just mention for the viewers that all of these comments refer to the difference between "this" and "that" while my question is between these two and "it". Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 21:42
  • 1
    As an aside, your contraction of versus is incorrect. The appropriate forms are ‘v.’ (shortened) or ‘vs’ (contracted). Neither form uses capitals, and "." should not be used with the form "vs". Versus can be shortened to "v." Or contracted to "vs" (no full stop). I hope this is helpful.
    – RJM
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 21:14

3 Answers 3


The difference between the two based on the "Cambridge dictionary" article, is as follow (quote):

"We use "it", "this" and "that" to introduce further information about a topic already mentioned. However, the words have different uses.

We use "it" to continue to refer to the topic we are already writing or speaking about:

The heart is the central organ in our bodies. It is used to pump oxygen around the body through the bloodstream. (It refers back to The heart)

Warning: We don’t use "it" when we first give information about a topic, for example immediately after a chapter or section title in a text:

(b) Green application form

*This* must be signed by all applicants and returned by 30 November 2009.

Not: *It* must be signed …

We can use "this" to refer back to whole clauses and sentences and to previous parts of a text. "This" highlights the information referred to much more strongly than it. Writers often use "this" when a point or idea is to become an important part of the discussion that follows:

More and more people are discovering that Tai Chi is one of the most valuable forms of exercise. This has led to a big demand for classes. (This refers back to a whole sentence.)

Heavy rains and stormy conditions throughout the summer have led to severe shortages in strawberries and other soft fruits. This has led to price rises in many supermarkets and shops.

We use "that" in a similar way to this. However, when we use "that", we distance ourselves more from the topic or from aspects of the topic:

For many traditional football supporters, it is a problem that so many young girls and women attend football matches these days. That is a sexist attitude of course.

"That" is also used to refer to ideas associated with another person:

The chairman apologised for the poor performance of the company and promised a better future for investors. That was a promise many people felt he could not possibly keep."

(All of the above is from the Cambridge dictionary. I've just added some graphics such bold letters etc. in order to make it easy for reading and understanding.)

The above Cambridge article deals with the using of "it", "this" and "that", while writing or talking generally. But the original question is also about a case of pointing on an animal or a fruit for example and talking about it. So in that case should we say "*It is a nice animal" or "This is a nice animal"?

It seems that it depends on context. If we are around with the ability to point on the object, meaning that we see it, then we can use "this" or "that" depends on the distance. But if we don't see it at all, we use "it". enter image description here

  • 3
    Excellent explanation, now it is completely clear, thank you.
    – DimaSan
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 22:14
  • I have an abstract topic (no real things, but a system option question), i.e. there is no physical distance and I were unsure whether to use this or that in the question to a colleague: "Do you know this right away?". Whereas the directly translated version from deepl.com/translator#de/en/wei%C3%9Ft%20du%20das%20sofort%3F used: "Do you know that by chance?". How to choose this and that for non physical things?
    – jan
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 7:37
  • Best explanation is whether I write before or after the question: ell.stackexchange.com/a/2850/105238
    – jan
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 7:44

The pronoun it (plural they) is definite — it can only be used if both the speaker and the listener(s) know what it refers to, and the referent is established using this, that, these, those or the name of the person or thing referred to.

For instance:

Son: That's my new car. I bought it yesterday. I'd let you drive it, but I still haven't insured it.

If you want to inject parenthetical information about the car, you can use that:

[still talking about the car]

Father: That's the third car you buy this year. I hope you take care of it.

Also, if you want to emphasize the pronoun, you have to switch to that/this/these/those because it can't be stressed in this usage:

[still talking about the car]


Father: That's a beautiful car, though! I love the color.


We use THIS when the co-speaker doesn't have any information about the topic or the thing mentioned.
However, use THAT when the speaker and his co-speaker are on the same page as to the thing mentionned.

  • Sounds wrong to me (as none native speaker) and I would argue the other way around actually, no?
    – jan
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 7:33
  • I am a native speaker of English and that doesn't make sense to me. This and that have to do with the local concept or the other concept which is more remote. If we are talking about something this will reference the thing we were just talking about where as I will say that to reference something which is more remote such as from another day. "This is a recipe for a blueberry pie. I liked it alot. Yesterday I tried a strawberry pie. That was a mistake. This blueberry recipe is much better."
    – Joshua
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 18:47

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