Reference to humans with this and that

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When is it rude to use this or that to refer to a person? A friend of mine, frustrated by someone who was moving too slow, muttered If this would only get out of the way…, and it was clearly a hostile putdown. But it's not a hostile putdown in a case like This person wants to know where the police station is. So could it be that when dependent this or that is used with a (non-insulting) noun denoting a human being it can be polite, but it's never polite to use it on its own to refer to a human being? No, that can't be right either, because it's perfectly polite to say This is my friend John. Whereas !*Have you met this? or !*This would like to meet you would be rude (I mark this grammatical-only-as-deliberately-rude status with a "!*" prefix). What is the rule or principle here? There must be one, because I know, tacitly, when to use this for human beings. It's just that I don't know what it is that I tacitly know.

I checked The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (I know I'm a co-author, but the book always contains a bit more than I remember it containing, no matter what I'm looking up), and the topic is covered (pp. 1504-1506); but anyone looking for an insightful explanation would hardly be satisfied. Here's the best I think current linguistics can do:

  1. Dependent this and that (with a head noun) can be used with human-denoting head nouns to make reference to human beings: This man is my son.
  2. Independent this and that in the singular (without a head noun) constitute an exception, and cannot in general be used to refer to human beings: !*This seems to have broken his glasses; !*That who wants to earn more should work harder; !*If she's going out with that she must be desperate.
  3. Independent that in the plural (those) is an exception to the exception in that it can be used to refer to human beings: Those who want to earn more should work harder.
  4. But independent this in the plural (these) is an exception to the exception to the exception, because it cannot be used to refer to human beings: *These who want to earn more should work harder; !*These said they wanted to meet you.
  5. There is another exception to 2 regarding both independent this and independent that in the singular, in that they can be used to refer to human beings when they are subject of a specificational copular clause: This is my friend John.
  6. There is a third exception to 2 in the case of at least some ascriptive copular clauses with predicative complement NPs: That's a very tall man over there; This is a beautiful child you have here.
  7. There are (so far as is currently known) no other exceptions.

Why just those exceptions and no others? I have no idea. I am reduced to just listing the facts to be described. I have no idea whether all of the exceptions could be made to fall under some elegant general principle.

There may still be some linguists who think there are going to turn out to be simple and elegant principles governing all of English syntax and semantics, but I can't imagine which planet they're from. Here in the real world, it looks to me as if some parts of our language are just a messy and surprising chaos of partial patterns and exceptions to the patterns and exceptions to the exceptions. We shouldn't stop looking for elegant generalizations, but in my humble and privately held opinion we will sometimes find that they are just not there to be discovered. This looks like one of those times.

If there were any insights on how the above list could be recast to have more generalizations and fewer exceptions, I would want to know about it. I'm almost on the edge of thinking about leaving comments open… oh, what the heck.


  1. Jim McCusker said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 10:41 am

    It seems pretty simple, actually, at a semantic level: We don't use pronouns that make people seem like things. At a pragmatics level, it gives you a warning about people who are willing to make people seem like things (Human Resources?).

  2. marie-lucie said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:00 am

    !*If she's going out with that she must be desperate.

    Wouldn't there be extra stress on that in this case, expressing disgust ?

    Same thing with

    She's going out with that?

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:01 am

    @Jim McCusker: I think you've bot a good point, but why does referring to people as this and that make them seem like things? And why don't the exceptions do so?

    @GKP: For me, rule 3 needs another condition: those works only with a complement (if that's the right word) restricting it.

    Those who want to earn more should work harder.

    Those with something to say on this topic thank you for allowing comments.

    !*Those said they wanted to meet you.

  4. Daniel said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:02 am

    Adding to Jim McCusker's point. Exception 5 only holds if the predicate in the specificational copular clause does denote humans as well. Otherwise it becomes rude, too.

    (i) !*This is an obstacle (for me going faster).
    (ii) He is an obstacle (for me going faster).

    I have the same intuition about German demonstratives as well.
    It also reminds me of the use of demonstrative together with expressives and other affective uses of demonstratives (cf. R. Lakoff's (1974) "Remarks on 'this' and 'that'). It is most often "that damn Daniel", instead of the "the damn Daniel".

    Maybe, in the end, there is something systematic going on here.

  5. Nelson said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:05 am

    Wouldn't the list be simplified somewhat if we take as a baseline that demonstratives can't refer to people? Then we only have at most only four rules, the ones currently listed as (1), (3), (5), and (6). Of these, only (3) is really weird, because of the non-parallelism with (4). I haven't thought too much about the various kinds of copular clauses that the demonstrative might or might not be usable in, but maybe we can boil this down to two systematic and one ad hoc set of exceptions (cases where demonstrative _can_ refer to people):

    A) When they are dependent on a head noun.

    B) In a copular clause (but possibly with further qualifications needed).

    C) 'Those' can anomalously be used independently to refer to human beings.

    (A) and (B) are similar in the sense that they both modify an overt noun in the sentence, but I'm not sure how significant that is. And it would be nice to come up with a generalization that accounted for 'those' as well. So this re-writing doesn't necessarily clarify what's actually going on, but it does seem to me like a slightly simpler way of putting the facts.

  6. abby_wan_kenobi said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:05 am

    Not to complicate things further, but I can think of a completely acceptable exception to number 4 on your above list of rules.

    But independent this in the plural (these) is an exception to the exception to the exception, because it cannot be used to refer to human beings…

    "These are my students."

  7. The Ridger said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:14 am

    @abby_wan_kenobi: That's not an exception. He just needs to change point 5 from reading "in the singular", since both "these" and "those" can function like "this/that" in such constructions.

  8. Ellen K. said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:20 am

    I would say "those" works stand-alone (independent) for people when used generically. In the example (Those who want to earn more should work harder.), "those" is generic; it doesn't refer to any specific group of people. "These" doesn't work because "these" always refers to specific people.

  9. D Sky Onosson said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    Without thinking about it too hard, wouldn't the answer have to do with the availability of pronouns in terms of new versus old reference? If something is new information, then in general a pronoun isn't available, so we can't have *He is my friend, John (when referring to a person standing in front of the speaker and hearer) and are forced to use this. If the referent is already established, then the pronouns are available.

  10. Grammar-type said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:29 am

    This or That = Thing

    Who or Whom = People

    Using "this" or "that" with a noun differentiates one person from others of a kind– a friend among friends, a person in a crowd. Without a noun to modify, it leaves the human being undistinguished from things. I take points off for students who write, for instance, "people that think this way" instead of "people who think this way."

  11. micah said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:30 am

    @D Sky Onosson: I think you're basically right that this has to do with pronoun availability, but in some cases the contour of that availability is confusing. "They who want to earn more should work harder" strikes me as stilted but grammatical, but it's not clear to me why it shouldn't sound perfectly natural, or why similar constructions ("They with Ferraris have large bank accounts") should sound flat-out wrong.

  12. Chris said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    @Jerry Friedman: that condition is a little too restrictive. Consider, when asked to describe a crowd with "What does everyone want?":

    "Those said they wanted to meet you."
    "Those just wanted an autograph."
    !* "That wanted to buy your book."

    However, in those contexts, "these" is equally valid (but not "this") if the crowd is near enough.

    I find the acceptability of "this is a beautiful child you have here" in #6 interesting, because it seems likely that the child can't hear, or isn't paying attention. If you were to be conversing with a couple, and say "this is a beautiful wife you have here," then you'd have to temporarily "exclude" her from the conversation. Likewise, in #5, "this is my friend John" makes sense only as an introduction; once he has entered the conversation, you can no longer use "this":

    "This is my friend John."
    "How do you know him"
    * "This is a member of my book club."

    I would add, as an exception, that "this" and "that" can never refer to a participant in the conversation, which does indeed seem similar to availability of pronouns.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    It seems to me the exceptions to not using these words with people other than right before a noun boil down to two things.

    1) "Those who…" (see my post above) This covers points 3 and 4.

    2) Copulars with the same groups referred to on both sides of a "to be" verb. These are my students. This covers both points 5 and 6. (Perhaps there's a reason for separating them as two points, though I don't see it. And they do have this commonality.)

  14. Kenny Smith said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    Re. 4: I think Geoffrey Boycott fairly routinely refers to England's opponents at cricket as "these", e.g. "if we can't beat these we aren't any good". A day or two monitoring England play the West Indies this summer should yield more examples. Not sure if it's a Yorkshire thing or peculiar to Boycott. Also usually negative, but Boycott a major confound there.

  15. Brian said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    Perhaps historically it was acceptable to use this/that/these/those to refer to people, but then things changed, and so now the form is only polite in a handful of well-established formations (such as establishing a new referent, as with introductions).

  16. Brian said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    (The point being, I forgot to mention, is that this could be why there isn't a more regular rule.)

  17. LDavidH said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    This doesn't really help with sorting out the English, but some might find it interesting: In Albanian, this discussion would be incomprehensible, as the 3rd person personal pronouns *are* the 3rd person demonstrative pronouns (which also means you have a choice of two words for "he" and two for "she"). "Ky" means "he" and "this (masc)"; "kjo" means "she" and "this (fem)". If you want to imply disgust (as in the above "She is going out with that?!", you have to do it by intonation (or more explicit rude words after the "that"…).

  18. D Sky Onosson said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    @ micah I agree that it isn't completely cut-and-dried, but I don't think that They with … works very well in any case.

  19. Bruce Rusk said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

    I wonder if exception 6 can be expanded to include this and that as complements rather than subjects of a copula. This usage may be a bit old-fashioned in some contexts, but "What kind of guy is this?" seems perfectly acceptable and not necessarily derogatory in my colloquial. So does this line from a recent play: "Is a person takin' advantage of a person here, and which person is that!?" (from

  20. Kevin said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    I feel that the prohibition on 'this' and 'that' is similar to the prohibition against using 'it' for a person. Many of the exceptions seem to come to whether (something like) 'it' could work in place of the 'this' or 'that'.

    So, "Have you met this?" is not acceptable, since "Have you met it (this thing by me)?" is a reasonable reading if the thing is a person.
    But, "This is my friend John" is acceptable, because "It (this thing by me) is my friend John" not a reasonable reading, as "John" cannot be an "it".

    This structure also explains to some extent why the plural 'those' is more acceptable — there is no equivalent to 'it' for third person plural pronouns (every group, human or not, is 'they'). But then I'm not sure why 'these' is not acceptable — maybe a proximity thing, as the speaker should know whether a (physically) proximate thing is human or not.

    In short, I think that many of the cases can be handled with two rules:
    * 'That', 'this', and 'these' are acceptable pronouns for people if the context makes it clear that they are people. In particular, if the pronouns reference a noun that is (mainly) used with people ('John', 'man', 'child').
    * 'Those' is more generally acceptable for people; use 'those' for either "people" nouns (as above) or for more general nouns with "animate" verbs.

    I am certain that I am overlooking complexity, probably some examples of which have already been offered above.

  21. Kevin said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    *** So, "Have you met this?" is not acceptable, since "Have you met it (this thing by me)?" is a reasonable reading if the thing is a person.

    Poor editing — first draft was correct:

    So, "Have you met this?" is not acceptable, since "Have you met it (this thing by me)?" is a reasonable reading.

  22. Ellen K. said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

    Chris posted while I was writing my post. I find his/her (singular they only works for me generically) examples interesting.

    "Those said they wanted to meet you."
    "Those just wanted an autograph."

    With the note that they also work with "these".

    These seem to be an additional exception. However, I don't see them working without being accompanied by pointing at the groups in question, and I wonder if pointing can be seen as standing in for a noun.

  23. GeorgeW said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

    Without working it out completely, I think D Sky Onosson may be on to something about new and old information.

    FWIW, there is a similar thing in Egyptian Arabic:

    da (this) is my friend John
    *huwwa (he) is my friend John

    How do you know him?

    huwwa (he) lives in my neighborhood.
    *da (this) lives in my neighborhood.

  24. Craig said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    It seems to me that, when used independently, the demonstratives combine both a pronoun function and a deictic (i.e. pointing) function — so if I say "this is delicious," 'this' acts both as a pronoun (standing for a noun like "pasta") and a deictic indicator (pointing down at my plate).

    So in the case of human referents, the rule is, for whatever reason, the demonstratives cannot be used independently except in cases where the deictic function is so dominant that it vastly outweighs the pronoun function.

    This accounts for both 5 and 6: the demonstratives in "this is my friend John" and "that's a very tall man over there" are functionally equivalent to adverbs that cannot be used as pronouns (e.g. "here is my friend John" or "there is a very tall man…"). It's only when the pronoun function of the demonstratives becomes so dominant that you can't replace them with other non-pronoun deictics that politeness forbids us from using them for people (like in the examples in #2: "this seems to have broken his glasses" is at least grammatically understandable; "here seems to have broken his glasses" is ungrammatical).

    This rule does not account for 3 ("those who want to earn more should work harder"), which seems like a different kind of exception from the others. I wonder whether we should really consider this an independent "this"? The relative clause which is directly attached to it seems to limit it in the same way a noun would — and the same is true with other similar allowable uses (e.g. "those with iPads will understand what I mean"). Because "those" must introduce some limiting phrase or clause to be allowable, perhaps it follows the rules of dependent rather than independent demonstratives. (But then why does this exception only apply to plural "that"?)

  25. Russell said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

    I'm basically with Nelson on this one. 3 doesn't seem like it'll come into line with any general story about demonstrative reference. And I agree with Jerry that the demonstrative needs some modification: those in charge are…, those who left were…, etc. In fact, if my intuition is working this morning, it actually requires the modifier locally:

    – everyone participated who wanted to
    – * those participated who wanted to

    @Ellen K: 5 and 6 have to be separated, I think, because this/that works with any specificational or equative copular clause, but not with just any predicational clause:

    – These are my students/Sue and Joe/the ones I was talking about/*smart/*really quite bright/*in the playground when they shouldn't be.

    I hadn't considered 6 before. Is it the same as Now that's a doctor? One could say that the demonstrative pronoun is referring to a situation rather than a person (sure it happens to involve a person). There are some sentences (which I'm sure GKP has seen before) that indicate non-person reference in cases 5 and 6:

    – This is Sue, isn't it/*she?
    – That's a very tall man over there, isn't it/*he?

    Of course that's just pushing the problem back: the demonstrative may not refer to a person, but why can it only refer to situations in that manner in such limited syntactic contexts?

  26. marie-lucie said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    Here is another question of usage, for which I would like input from native English speakers (especially Canadians):

    I frequently use "these ones" to refer to things: I'll take these ones, for instance, or These ones look better, if there is a choice of items. I was not aware that this phrase was anything out of the ordinary until an anglophone friend started to constantly correct me: I should say I'll take these, etc.

    I know I learned "these", not "these ones", when I studied English, and I don't know when or where I started to use "these ones", as it was not a conscious decision, but I have started to listen carefully and quite a few anglophones I know also use "these ones", so my use of this phrase is not due to my imperfect mastery of English but I must have picked it up from hearing others.

    I have not tried to research this topic systematically, but I wonder if "these ones" (or "those ones") might be a non-standard or regional form.

  27. Bloix said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    Don't forget crude usage by people intentionally treating a woman as an object: "Look at that!", or "I'd screw that!".

  28. sedeer said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    In spoken FInnish it's quite common to use 'se/ne' (= sing./plural 'It') to refer to people — perhaps more common than 'hän/he', which are the "prope"r sing./plural pronouns used in formal & written Finnish. For what it's worthi, this is even supported by the completely unscientific and hopelessly inaccurate use of Google for comparison:

    "se tulee huomenna" ~78,000 hits
    "hän tulee huomenna" ~11,000 hits

    One thing to keep in mind is that the difference may in fact be due to the additional sense of first phrase, which can mean "he/she/it will come tomorrow" , while the second is restricted to "he/she will come tomorrow",

  29. Trish said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

    I agree with @Craig_said, that the phenomenon under discussion has to do with deixis. But I think that reference to humans using *this* or *that* is more restricted when the deictic function is more pronounced. Other evidence for such a restriction include the rudeness of pointing at someone with one's hands (rather than with one's words) and the rudeness, under certain conditions, of referring to someone with a third person pronoun in the presence of that person. I think it has to do with objectifying people (as @Bloix points out). In examples 5 and 6, *this* and *that* are actually used in conjunction with non-insulting nouns that refer to human beings as animate objects (friend and man); so the objectification is weakened. It is more allowable to objectify groups of people, as in example #3, but then it seems we can only do so if we make the referents more remote (plural *that* rather than plural *this*).

  30. Ray Girvan said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

    @Jim McCusker: We don't use pronouns that make people seem like things

    … except that the judgement of when we're doing that isn't universally agreed-on in many cases. I've often seen this argument – "it's wrong becase it's treating a person like a thing" – used to justify the quite counterfactual prescriptive stance that using "that" for people (for instance, "the woman that was a sinner") is wrong.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    @Chris: Consider, when asked to describe a crowd with "What does everyone want?":

    "Those said they wanted to meet you."
    "Those just wanted an autograph."
    !* "That wanted to buy your book."

    The first one doesn't work for me—it would have to be "Those people…" However, the following one could be "those". I think (in haste) that I have a fairly general rule: after "these" and "those" followed by a noun, bare (pronominal) "these" and "those" referring contrastingly to the same noun are always acceptable, whether the noun refers to people or not. "Those people [pointing to the left] are rooting for State, and those [pointing to the right] are rooting for Tech."

  32. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

    @Jerry Friedman:
    But consider this: A large number of people who have shown up at an author's book signing. The proprietor of the bookstore asks them the form two groups, those who want an autographed copy and those who simply buy the book.
    Then he says to the author, "These want an autographed copy but those want to buy a book without your autograph."

  33. Ellen K. said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    @Russell: Your examples that don't work are not examples of the same group being referred to on both sides of copular verb. The complements refer to something about the groups, but not to the groups. The complements aren't nouns.

  34. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    "Those who" (or "those that") seems to have, at some point in the history of modern English, supplanted "they/them that", e.g. Genesis 7:16: KJV "And they that went in…", modern versions "Those that entered". I don't know exactly when, or why, the change occurred, and why only in the plural: "he/she who" is still standard.

  35. D Sky Onosson said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    @ marie-lucie I grew up as an anglophone in Winnipeg, and for me "these" and "these ones" are pretty much equivalent in meaning, and I wouldn't consider either to be non-standard in any way. I think "these ones" offers a focus/contrast reading ("these ones, not those ones"), whereas plain "these" doesn't necessarily imply that, though it's available in either case. That's really about it, I think.

  36. Yuval said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

    I've found the usage of "this one" to be even more confusing. The way I see it used in TV shows, for example, seems to suggest it was once fairly common to refer to people as "this one", even in their presence, without them taking offence ("this one told me I could find you here", with the proper head gesture). Today this appears to be improbable.

  37. alex said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

    D Sky Onosson said, April 7, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    "I grew up as an anglophone in Winnipeg, and for me "these" and "these ones" are pretty much equivalent in meaning . . . "

    It strikes me that there is a connection here with the increasing use of "yours" (or "mine") instead of "your place" (or "my place") in recent British English.

  38. Russell said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

    @Ellen, right you are, I didn't notice that Geoff specifically mentioned NPs in #6.

  39. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

    A lot of people seem to be getting hung up on #3, but that 'those' seems to me to be something of an expletive, like 'there'. As some have noted, it only comes up in relativized constructions ('those who…', 'those with…').


  40. John said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 7:32 pm

    I think the deixis explanation (which is at play in Craig's bookstore example as well) is a good one.

    Is this related to the (fading) usage of "it" when referring to a baby? Is it polite anymore to say, when looking at an infant, "What is it?"

  41. Theophylact said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

    Gotta be the English equivalent of iste as Cicero would have used it.

  42. Alan Gunn said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

    Houseman's poem "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries" uses "these" in a way that seems to violate #4. Maybe it's just that poetry is special, but I've wondered before about its use here. In Cozzens' novel "Guard of Honor" a pilot quotes the last four lines of this poem but changes "these" to "they."

    Here's the poem, which is a tribute to the BEF, largely wiped out by the time it was written. (The "mercenaries" thing is a dig at the Germans, who claimed that their army of conscripts was morally superior to Britain's pre-war professional soldiers.)

    These, in the day when heaven was falling,
    The hour when earth's foundations fled,
    Followed their mercenary calling,
    And took their wages, and are dead.

    Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
    They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
    What God abandoned, these defended,
    And saved the sum of things for pay.

  43. Joe Fineman said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

    Farewell my friends! farewell my foes!
    My peace with these, my love with those. — Burns

    [Joe: you forgot something I already mentioned: those is special and does allow human reference (those who wish to come…). Ellipsis is much worse in the singular: ?I've met this guy on the left, but I haven't met that. —GKP]

  44. marie-lucie said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

    Thank you, DSO, now I don't have to feel so self-conscious about "these ones".

  45. Gregory Stump said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

    As an alternative to independent "that", "that one" doesn't seem insulting in all cases: "Here come some of your friends; please introduce me to that one." But it can be said insultingly; recall McCain's reference to Obama as "that one" in a 2008 presidential debate.

  46. Jangari said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

    For instances like 'this is my friend', I think part of what's going on may be related to the type of copular clause it is. I can't remember the various categories of copular clauses, but identity and attribution come to mind. Notice that you can't say, when introducing someone:

    *This was my wife

    You have to say something like:

    This is my ex-wife

    It seems to me that attributive copular clauses (if that's what they're called) don't allow independent demonstratives; they have to be identity clauses. Taking a template X is Y, for attributive clauses X is a mere attribute of Y, whereas in identity clauses, X and Y are considered identical. I.e., she is my wife is not saying that 'she' has the attribute of 'being my wife', but that 'she' and 'my wife' are two noun phrases that have the same referent. It just so happens that the only occasions in which people appear in identity clauses are in kinship, naming (This is Lisa) or titles (This is the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg).
    There's a counterexample however, to my grand theory:

    Are those your friends?
    Those were my friends.

    But I'd say what's going on here is the influence of the parallel structure allowing it. And it's still not quite clearly not an identity clause, just a tweaked one. As for the this was my wife example above, I can construct a context in which it's okay, but it's as parallel as the last example.
    I still think one permissible instance of independent demonstratives denoting humans is when they occur in identity copular clauses.

  47. Jeff Carney said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

    I like these people. I don't like those. Head noun elided. If this was mentioned, I don't recall it.

    [Jeff: you forgot (and you are not the first) that I already said those is special (those who wish to come…). Ellipsis is much worse in the singular: ?I've met this guy on the left, but I haven't met that. —GKP]

    Looking at the Burns quote Joe Fineman cites, I'm not sure if I'm seeing the same sort of elision or a Burnsian version of Latin hic/ille.

  48. Skullturf said,

    April 7, 2012 @ 11:55 pm

    "These ones" sounds totally ordinary and unremarkable for me. I grew up in Victoria, British Columbia.

  49. marie-lucie said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 12:36 am

    I spent over twenty years in British Columbia.

  50. Daniel Barkalow said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 12:37 am

    Jangari: For me, (ignoring the rude case) "Those were my friends" is only okay when they were my friends when the question was asked; since it's contrastive with the present, there are two options: (1) They've alienated me just now; (2) They've left (Or both could be true, with or without causation). I could also say, "This was my wife" in the case when, between saying "this" and saying "was", I discover that she's not actually there (or if I'm showing you a recently-vacated chair). Alternatively, if I were showing you a picture of my ex-wife, taken when we were married, it would be okay. In any of these cases, the time when "this" referred to someone is the time when the person was my wife, and it's left unspecified (although it may be obvious) what changed to make the statement no longer work.

  51. YM said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 1:27 am

    Keeping in mind that English is my second language, I think (2) goes further than just human beings. Independent this and that are proscribed for living things in general, animate or otherwise:

    [1] * This barks whenever it sees a cat.*

    [2] This sheds all its leaves by mid-September.

    Even with non-living things, there are some questionable ones:

    [3] ?This has a beautiful sound when it's tuned up.?

    [4] This gets good gas mileage.

    I think these last two might work under some circumstances, but I'd still prefer 'this one'.

  52. Eric P Smith said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 2:34 am

    I think that the basic principle is the following. Independent this and that cannot refer to human beings without objectifying them. The apparent exceptions turn out not to be exceptions at all.

    3. Those who want to earn more should work harder. "Those", on its own, is non-referential. The referential NP is "those who want to earn more".

    4. *These who want to earn more should work harder. Indeed that is impossible, but the construction is impossible with things as well as with people. In (3), those is not deictic: it means "the ones", and there is no parallel construction with these, whether with things or with people.

    5. This is my friend John. Here is where things get interesting. I’m with Russell, above. I maintain that this is not properly analysed as referring to the human being John. It is a dummy subject, like it in It is John, or there in There is plenty of milk. The sentence is a presentational clause: it means something like "Present here is my friend John". I believe my analysis is supported by Russell’s example This is Sue, isn't it/*she?. It is also consistent with D Sky Onosson’s point about new information. These are my friends John and Margaret is a plural version of the same construction. It also explains why the verb has to be be: we can’t say *This is my friend John and works for NASA. It also explains Jangari’s example that we can’t say *This was my wife (because it would mean "Present here was my wife") but we can put the phone down and say That was John meaning "Present there was John".

    6. That’s a very tall man over there and This is a beautiful child you have here are similar. In the cases in 5, be is specificational and in the cases in 6 be is ascriptive, but I maintain that in both classes of case this or that is a dummy subject and does not refer to a human being.

  53. RLH said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 5:55 am

    I think it used to be much more common to use demonstrative pronouns for persons. E.g. Samuel Johnson's Rasselas (1759):

    .. these only were admitted whose performance was thought able to add novelty to luxury.

    The OED adds several more examples:

    1374 Chaucer: This is so gentle and so tender of heart.

    1623 Shakespeare Julius Caesar: What a blunt fellow is this grown to be!

    1611 KJV John 21:15: Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?

    1674 A. Cremer: The Russians are generally tall, the Laplanders..very short; those are fat and corpulent, these lean and slender.

    1902 Westm. Gaz.: I left the skaters flitting to and fro, these with their hockey sticks, those with their sledges.

    The reason for today's remaining exceptions is, I think, that evolution is still in progress. It reminds me of the modern specialization of "who" (for persons) and "which" (for things).

  54. GeorgeW said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 6:28 am

    As an aside, I have heard "this one" and "that one" used in an affectionate manner in reference to a spouse or child.

    Maybe by ostensibly objectifying someone who is clearly not thought of in that way is a way of expressing endearment.

  55. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 8:33 am

    Melanie (Safka) wrote a song in which "This one" refers to herself: "Lord help this one, someone stole my soul …."

  56. John said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 9:16 am


    I'm always dubious of poetic examples. A few of yours, esp. West. Gaz., seem overtly and deliberately Latinate.

  57. Ted McClure said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 10:17 am

    Perhaps a comparison to the positional indicators in American Sign Language would help? When discussing similarities and differences among several subjects, the signer may place subsets at different locations within the signing space–upper left, lower left, right, however many locations as are necessary to identify the subsets. In English, when refering to animate object, this/these refers to subset(s) located nearer to the speaker in the discussion space (typically geographical) and that/those refers to subset(s) further away. In Houseman's poem the poet is gathering the subjects in to himself, distinguishing them from "those" who did not stand. Sarcastic reification seems to arise when the context identifies no discussion space.

  58. Glenn Bingham said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 10:34 am

    I'm with Craig…

    "the demonstratives combine both a pronoun function and a deictic (i.e. pointing) function"

    In the case of "Those who want to earn more should work harder," the demonstrative + restrictive clause establishes the set of referents. In a parallel non-restrictive clause, such as "Those, who (incidentally) want to earn more, should work harder," the speaker is required to aim his head or beak or otherwise offer a gesture to "point out" the workers to establish the set of referents.

  59. Barbara Partee said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

    Roger Higgins in his classic 1973 dissertation which introduced the notion of specificational copular clauses had an elegant little demonstration that the "this" or "that" of presentational "That's John", "This is John" is not an ordinary subject:
    1 a) ok: Jones is the mayor.
    b) ok: Jones is mayor.
    2 a) ok: That's the mayor.
    b) not ok: * That's mayor.

    When we use 'mayor' with no article, it has to be part of the predicate. When it's part of the predicate, the subject is a regular subject.
    In 2a, as in "That's John", the "that" can be a non-referential expletive, and what's after the copula is the 'real subject', as several have already noted. In 2b, it can't be, since what's after the copula can't be a regular subject. So 2b is bad because a referential use of bare 'that' can't refer to a human, as Geoff noted. It's just that the account of why 2a is ok has to include the fact that in 2a, "that" is not the subject (at least not a 100% bonafide subject).

    And I also thank Geoff for opening the comments this time. I think they've been good. I enjoy it when specialists and non-specialists can discuss things together on more or less equal terms — I think we all learn something.

  60. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    Google hits on "them that" return either colloquialisms, like Ray Charles' "them that's got are them that gets" (not the singular verb forms, as in Bloix's example) or else as the objective case of "they that," mainly from the KJV.

    "They that" is still found in the 18th century, as in Benjamin Franklin's "[t]hey that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Franklin may, of course, have deliberately used an archaic construction.

  61. Mr Punch said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    Like GeorgeW, I've been hearing "this one" as a positive reference, among young women.

    "These ones" seems informal/colloquial to me, but less so if occurs in the context of choice (as in, "I'll take these ones," which I believe was the first example above).

  62. Mittens said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

    I think there isn't a grammatical principle to explain these things, but there is a semantic one, i.e. I'm with Jim McCusker.

    The only independent this/that forms that are considered polite make it clear that the this/that is referring to a person or people. This is Mr. X, that's a very tall man, this is a nice child, those who.

    And seconding Daniel, I also think these things work in roughly the same way in German, though the functions are divided up a bit differently since you don't have an equivalent of the this/that pair and the work is done by what are otherwise definite articles and dies-. But the independent uses of these also correlate with when the reference is clearly to a person, not a thing. And das for a person in any sense but 5 (Das ist Fr. Müller, as an introduction) is very nasty indeed, and is often immediately followed by the overt naming of a substance or object which the person is considered to be a specimen of.

    I wonder if this divvies up similarly in other languages along semantic lines despite greater grammatical divergence than we have between English and German, i.e. if a fairly clear and widely held politeness principle of not appearing to objectify people is imposing itself through different sets of available grammatical tools.

  63. Mittens said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    Having taken note of Eric P Smith I revise my 2nd sentence above to
    … make it clear that the speaker is referring …

  64. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    @Ralph Hickock: Independent "these" doesn't sound quite as bad to me in your example as in some others, but even there, I feel sure I'd say "these people" the first time. Maybe that's just me. And of course, as Ellen K. said, some gestures are essential.

    @Jeff Carney: Yes, these and those were used, mostly in poetry, for the latter and the former, and I think you must be right that it's a Latinism (and a Gallicism?). The first person I think of is Pope, e.g.,

    In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
    True Taste as seldom is the Critic's share;
    Both must alike from Heav'n derive their light,
    These born to judge, as well as those to write.

    "An Essay on Criticism"

    These ones and Those ones are common here in northern New Mexico. I hadn't thought the phrases occurred in English (though they're natural for me with an intervening adjective, as in those blue ones), but this calls it a British usage, and I've seen it in Australian English too.

  65. Jane said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 11:04 pm

    Russian works the same way as English here. It's rude to refer to someone as "eto" or "ono" ("this" or "it"), but there's nothing wrong with "eto moy drug" ("This is my friend").

  66. Alexander said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 8:19 am

    At least in Erzgebirgisch (the German of the Ore Mountains, between Saxony and Bohemia), the bare definite article is the norm for third person pronominal reference (even proximally).

    To speakers of many other varieties of German, this sounds insulting, like being call "this" or "that one" in English. So it can cause social problems (I know from experience). Given this, and the ongoing loss of regional languages in Europe, there might be interesting sociolinguistics to be done on this topic.

  67. Greg Morrow said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    "Who is that?" presumably is category 5?

    Craig's discussion of deixis seems intuitively satisfying. It's not quite there — if we all have the same judgments about when deixis or pronoun is dominant, then there's presumably a yet-unarticulated rule. But still, it matches my intuition, that the human-referent demonstratives are all strongly deictic — even "those who", which is an abstract class some metaphorical distance from the people in the discussion.

  68. Joel said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

    A somewhat different use of "this" and "that" I have recently noticed, is the use, especially by second-language speakers of English, of "this guy" and "that guy" for abstract deixis, i.e. not referring to a "guy" at all…

  69. John said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

    I feel like YM's observation (that the discussion changes very little when we remove the restriction to humans) hasn't been explored enough. In fact, I can't think of too many solid examples in which a construction forbidden for people is allowed for inanimate objects, or vice versa. GKP's examples in particular seem to carry over quite well: If *If this would only get out of the way…, referring to a person, sounds off, then so does *If this were only removed by now, referring to a piece of large debris on the road. This person wants to know where the station is is fine, just as This laptop contains the addresses of every police station in the city is. You can say This is my friend John, but not *Have you met this?, just as you can say This is my new furniture! but not *Have you seen this? in the same context (Have you seen this? seems to work for certain things, like websites and Rubik's cubes, better than others, like trees and cities, though all are fine when the noun comes with it: Have you seen this city? is awkward but grammatical; A jolly Have you seen this? to a fellow passenger looking out the window as the plane approaches its destination, seems implausible). This man is my son; This money is my reward. *This seems to have broken his glasses; *This seems to have malfunctioned (It or This machine or This one, but surely not just This?). *That who wants to earn more should work harder and *That which you have not yet solved must be finished by the deadline (math problems), but Those who want to earn more should work harder and Those which you have not solved must be finished by the deadline. (Although something beyond my grasp seems to be happening here: That which is true is often disappointing is fine. Is it an abstract/concrete distinction happening here?) Also *These who want to earn more should work harder and *These which you have not yet solved must be finished by the deadline (here, both are OK with commas delimiting the relative clauses).

    Et cetera.

  70. Eugene said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 5:25 am

    The comments support GKP's assertion that a few simple syntactic and semantic generalizations can't capture the facts. However, the issue is primarily pragmatic and, specifically, referential. When the deictic pronoun clearly refers to a human, we tend to judge it as grammatical.
    The clear grammatical examples are deictics modified by relative clauses (those who…) and subject complements (this is…).
    Ungrammatical examples are always harder to explain, but independent this/that/these/those as objects of lexical verbs tend to be ungrammatical or rude when they refer to humans. (!*I'd like to introduce you to this.) This has something to do with the information structure of the utterance. Bare this/that/these/those work better in given information situations than in new information situations.
    I think those two generalizations account for 85% of the data (wild guess alert).
    Any time we think that one or two simple ideas can explain the grammaticality or ungrammaticality of an utterance, we'll run into trouble. Multiple factors are always involved.

  71. Pete said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    In Lancashire (and possibly other parts of Northern England), I've noticed plain these can be used to refer to people, without any rudeness or pejorative connotations. One example that springs to mind is a friend saying (referring to a band on TV) "I've seen these live." It basically means the same as these guys or these lot.

    I can't say I've noticed plain this, that or those used in the same way, though.

  72. Tim Butler said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    Just wanted to add a biblical example of "these" used alone to refer to a group of people:
    "And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’" -Matthew 25:40
    That's the ESV—a modern translation—not the KJV, but I'd imagine the usage of "least of these" was simply carried over as a stock phrase from the KJV.

  73. Fiona Hanington said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

    @marie-lucie To me, as to you and the other Canadians who have replied, "these ones" is completely acceptable.
    I'm not certain, but I think I recollect seeing a discussion of this topic on Language Log once. I was surprised that some of the commenters on that thread found "these ones" odd.
    I'm from BC.

  74. Fiona Hanington said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    Found it!
    Re: "These ones" on Language Log:
    And more:

  75. David Walker said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    I don't like the phrase "people that", as in "People that like chocolate are the luckiest people". Someone once told me "people are not things". Is this related?

  76. Yet another John said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 3:50 pm

    @ Eric P Smith: I disagree with your analysis that "this" in "This is my friend John" is a semantically empty placeholder just like "there" in "I believe that there is a God." It clearly has some deictic force:

    (at a cocktail party) "This is my friend John, that (pointing vaguely towards the punchbowl) is Judy, and that (gesturing toward the corner) is Harry."

    However, Eric P Smith made a very interesting observation that independent this/that, when referring to humans, seems to resist being the subject of any other verb than "be." So we cannot account for all the facts simply by saying that "this/that" is OK for introducing people (after which we refer to them has "he/she."

    Also consider:

    (pointing to a man at my side) *"This is the reason why our company has been so successful in the past year."

    (Whereas "This man is the reason why… " is fine, as is "This is John." So bare "this" isn't always OK even as the subject of an introduction.)

    I was about to say that, in referring to humans, bare "this/that/these/those" is in complementary distribution with "he/she/they." But that's not quite right, considering "Now THAT's a real man!" vs. "Now HE is a real man!" (Both sound OK to me, and synonymous.)

  77. Eric P Smith said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    @Yet another John. Thanks.

    When I described this in This is John as a "dummy subject", my phrase "dummy subject" was ill-chosen. I did not mean to imply that it is a semantically empty placeholder. I agree it is deictic: I said it meant something like "present here", and so it has the same deictic sense as "here". I should have been more accurate if I had restricted myself to saying that it is non-referential, and that it is not a 100% bonafide subject (Barbara Partee’s expression).

    Craig made the point, a good one I think, that this in This is John combines a pronoun function and a deictic. Can I perhaps salvage my use of the word "dummy" by suggesting that it combines a dummy pronoun function and a deictic? Or is that clutching at straws?

    You credit me with the "very interesting observation that independent this/that, when referring to humans, seems to resist being the subject of any other verb than be". You are kind, but actually that is inherent in what GKP says at points 5 and 6 in his original post. I was merely reiterating GKP’s point in the context of my point that this in examples 5 and 6 is non-referential.

  78. Jo said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

    I'm not a professional at all, and am a little worried to comment about this, but what the heck, right? I can't help but think of Antony's eulogy on Brutus:

    His life was gentle, and the elements
    So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
    And say to all the world, "This was a man!"

    and wonder if Housman (as quoted by Alan Gunn) isn't trying to evoke the same kind of eulogistic mood. To say "this was a man" or "this was my mother" or whatever, in the context of a eulogy seems perfectly acceptable to me, and there's a little bit of support from google, although it's hard to search for properly.

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