There's a simple test:

What are those?

A. Those are apples.

B. They are apples.

The answer key is B. This might just be a simple question, but I don't have a strong reason why A is not correct? Any thoughts? Thanks!

  • What book is this from?
    – user3395
    Jun 14, 2018 at 13:44
  • @userr2684291 it's what have been taught from our local school of my kid. But teachers are not English native speakers. This test is from one of exams my kid took from her school.
    – dan
    Jun 14, 2018 at 13:49
  • The answer is wrong.
    – Eddie Kal
    Jun 14, 2018 at 13:54
  • @Deansue they give an explanation: we usually use It's an Apple to respond to What is this? Similarly, this -> it, those -> they. Does that explanation make some sense?
    – dan
    Jun 14, 2018 at 14:08
  • 1
    @Deansue - It's not so much that the answer is "wrong" (there is nothing wrong with answer B); however, the question is indeed poorly designed (there is nothing wrong with answer A, either). Also, dan, if you point to an apple and ask me "What is this?", there isn't one single proper way to answer. I might say, "It's an apple," but I could also say, "That's an apple," or, "It's one apple," or even, "It was the last apple – but now I'm going to eat it." [crunch, crunch... "Yum!"] That's the biggest problem with these tests: "usually use" isn't the same as "anything else is incorrect."
    – J.R.
    Jun 14, 2018 at 14:13

3 Answers 3


Both "Those are" and "They are" are grammatically possible, but "They are" is more likely.

"Those" is a demonstrative pronoun. It can be used to refer to an object that hasn't been mentioned before, by indicating it as "the ones distant from the speaker". "They" is a personal pronoun. It refers to an object that has already been mentioned.

"Those" can refer to objects that are distant from the speaker, but may be close to the listener. As such the reply could be "These are".

However there is no need to use a demonstrative pronoun to refer to something, as it has already been referred to by the first speaker. This means I can just use a personal pronoun to refer to "the same thing that you are talking about". When it is possible to use "they" it is preferable to using "those" as it avoids repetition.

  • A side question: what would be, if any, the difference between What are those and what are they? The reason why I ask this is I feel what are those sounds a bit stilted. Thanks!
    – dan
    Jun 14, 2018 at 15:12
  • 1
    As in the statement, when you use "they" it should refer to something already mentioned "I have three things/what are they?" On the other hand "those" can refer to something new "{points at some strange object}What are those?" There is nothing stilted about "What are those?"
    – James K
    Jun 14, 2018 at 15:39
  • 1
    @dan - Your side question reminds me of an earlier ELL question, about the difference between this and that.
    – J.R.
    Jun 14, 2018 at 17:43

A is not incorrect. It's just another way of responding to that question.

A native speaker would more likely use they in unexceptional circumstances, especially if no emphasis were required. But it would not be wrong, nor even unusual, for one to use those in slightly heightened circumstances.

Teacher opens a folder and begins handing out papers. Alarmed, a boy in the back row raises his hand:
Student: What are those?
Teacher: Those are quizzes. We're going to find out who read the assignment.

It is a slightly more mannered way of answering the question, but it would cause no confusion to anyone. It would also not be uncommon for the word to be stressed slightly.

  • I think the teacher is more likely to use these instead of those in that dialogue, but your point is well taken.
    – J.R.
    Jun 14, 2018 at 14:18

those points (verbally) at something.

When do we physically point at something? When it is not close to us and we're pointing it out to someone who may or may not be close to it.

Look at those birds up on the wire. I've never seen that species around here.

Or when it is close to us but far from the person we are speaking to. these points (verbally) at something close to the speaker.

These shoes I'm wearing are new.

Consider this exchange:

These shoes I'm wearing are new.
-- Hey, those are nice shoes. Where did you get them?
I got them at the shoe store on Main Street.
-- They look very comfortable.

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