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He's this smart?
He's that smart?

I'm having trouble identifying the usage of "this" and "that" in the above sentences. Can anyone explain the grammar behind the sentences and give similar example sentences?

Am I correct in assuming that they are adjective intensifiers?

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I think it's like the difference in French between voici ("here is/this is") and voila ("there is/that is"). You'd use "this smart" when considering, for instance, evidence which is right in front of you ("Look at this analysis! He's this smart? But he has no experience!). You'd use "that smart" when considering something at a distance, either in distance or time (The new guy solved the problem? He's that smart?). The difference is in the immediacy of the evidence.

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  • Good French example! Feb 10, 2015 at 5:18
  • Ah! I see. That makes a lot of sense. It also seems like "this" and "that" can only be used in this way when there's some sort of evidence to consider then?
    – jwp36
    Feb 10, 2015 at 5:30
  • In the absence of specific evidence, you'd just say "He's smart." Feb 10, 2015 at 5:36
  • @jwp36 - Yes, I would say that they're used when referring to some kind of evidence. "He's this smart" is essentially equivalent to "He's as smart as this." Which is why it would sound very strange to use without any evidence or reference. If you just said, "My cousin is this smart", without any context, people would give you a funny look and say, "Uh, how smart? As smart as what?"
    – stangdon
    Feb 10, 2015 at 18:55

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