Demonstrative Pronouns

by Craig Shrives

What Are Demonstrative Pronouns? (with Examples)

A demonstrative pronoun is a pronoun that represents a noun and expresses its position as near or far (including in time). The demonstrative pronouns are "this," "that," "these," and "those."

Easy Examples of Demonstrative Pronouns

  • This is ludicrous.
  • Is that yours?
  • Eat these tonight.
  • Throw those away.
demonstrative pronouns

More about Demonstrative Pronouns

Like all pronouns, demonstrative pronouns replace nouns or noun phrases. More specifically, a demonstrative pronoun stands in for something that has been previously mentioned or is understood from context (called its antecedent).
  • Do you remember the lobster with the blue claw? Can I have that please?
  • (Here, "that" stands in for something previously mentioned. The antecedent of "that" is the noun phrase "the lobster with the blue claw.")
  • This is delicious.
  • (Here, the context tells us what "this" represents. The antecedent of "this" is "lobster" or "meal.")
  • Do you remember the two lobsters holding claws? Can I have those please?
  • (The antecedent of "those" is shown in bold.)
  • These are delicious.
  • (Remember that, with demonstrative pronouns, the antecedent does not always appear in nearby text. The antecedent is often understood from the context of the speaker's surroundings.)
The singular demonstrative pronouns "this" and "that" stand in for singular things (e.g., "the lobster with the blue claw"). The plural demonstrative pronouns "these" and "those" stand in for plural things (e.g., "the two lobsters holding claws").

As well as telling us whether its antecedent is singular or plural, a demonstrative pronoun also tell us whether its antecedent is near or distant. "That" and "those" stand in for distant things (e.g., "the lobsters in the tank"). "This" and "these" stand in for near things (e.g., "the lobsters on the plate").

  • Paint this but not that. Remove these but not those.
  • (Demonstrative pronouns are pretty efficient. They tell us what, how many, and where. These two short sentences convey the following information: "Paint the nearby wall I'm pointing to but not the distant wall I'm pointing to. Remove the picture hooks I'm pointing to but not those distant picture hooks I'm pointing to.")
Remember that demonstrative pronouns stand in for things. (Typically, they stand in for a noun phrase or a previously expressed idea.) Demonstrative pronouns do not modify nouns. When "this," "that," "these," and "those" modify nouns, they are demonstrative determiners (called demonstrative adjectives in traditional grammar). In the four examples below, we have demonstrative determiners modifying nouns (shown in bold). In the first four examples above, the demonstrative pronouns stood in for these nouns.
  • This idea is ludicrous.
  • Is that bike yours?
  • Eat these crumpets tonight.
  • Throw those rolls away.

Even More about Demonstrative Pronouns

There are a couple of quirks with demonstrative pronouns.

(Quirk 1) A demonstrative pronoun doesn't always stand in for something known to audience.

In the examples below, we don't know what "those" or "that" stands for until we've read the descriptions. (The descriptions (shown in bold) are called relative clauses.)
  • Fear not those who argue but those who dodge. (Author Dale Carnegie)
  • That which is unjust can really profit no one; that which is just can really harm no one. (Economist Henry George)

(Quirk 2) The "antecedent" of a demonstrative pronoun can come after it.

Occasionally, the thing the demonstrative pronoun represents comes after the demonstrative pronoun. When this happens, it's called a "postcedent" (shown in bold) not an antecedent.
  • That is why every military officer fights – so there may be peace. (Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos)
  • (The President deliberately used the wrong word order for emphasis. Anastrophe this technique is called.)
The most common writing issue involving a demonstrative pronoun is a weak, ambiguous, or non-existent link to its antecedent (sometimes called "a faulty pronoun reference").

(Top Issue) When using a demonstrative pronoun, make sure your link to its antecedent is obvious.

Typically, the antecedent of a demonstrative pronoun is close by in the previous text. In these two examples, the links to the antecedents (shown in bold) are not ambiguous.
  • My court case isn't a trial. This is a lynching. (Pathologist Jack Kevorkian)
  • Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it. (Playwright George Bernard Shaw)
  • (The whole previous sentence, i.e., the idea, is the antecedent of "That.")
You must ensure your demonstrative pronoun's antecedent is clear. Let's imagine George Bernard Shaw had written this instead:
  • Liberty means responsibility. That is what most men dread.
  • (Is the antecedent of "that" the whole idea as before? It's now less clear because the antecedent could be liberty or responsibility.)
Here are some more examples with ambiguous antecedents:
  • Expect a Spanish policeman to check you have a reflective jacket, a warning triangle, headlamp beam deflectors, a GB sticker, and a spare set of headlamp bulbs, although these are no longer compulsory.
  • (Now, it's pretty clear that the antecedent of "these" is "a spare set of headlamp bulbs," but it could feasibly be the whole list.)
  • The next intake of recruits will receive four presentations on the new procedures. These are scheduled to start in mid-August.
  • (The antecedent of "these" is ambiguous. It could be "the recruits," "the presentations," or "the procedures.")
Such ambiguity occurs because a writer knows what the antecedent is and assumes others will spot it with the same clarity of thought. (Unfortunately though, that clarity of thought doesn't always shine through the words.)

The issue most often occurs when a writer has expressed a multi-component idea and then starts a sentence with a term like "This means…," "This explains…," or "This is why…."

If you find yourself starting a sentence with a demonstrative pronoun, ask yourself a question like "What means…," "What explains…," or "What is why…." If the answer doesn't leap out at you, you should consider a rewrite or a demonstrative determiner and a noun to spell it out more clearly.

  • The next intake of recruits will receive four presentations on the new procedures. These presentations are scheduled to start in mid-August.
  • (Now we have a demonstrative determiner modifying the noun "presentations." You've spelt it out more clearly. The ambiguity is gone.)

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