Musings on “this” and “that”

There is a beautiful symmetry about the four determiner this, that, these, and those. Phonetically, they are obviously close but did you realize that the phonetic closeness mirrors their syntactic closeness?

Let’s start by looking at that obviousness.

  • this = /ðɪs/
  • that = /ðæt/
  • these = /ðiz /
  • those = /ðəʊz/

They all begin with the a voiced dental fricative, /ð/; they all end with a dental, /s/, /t/, and /z/; and they all have the same phonotactic structure, CVC.

At the syntactic level, this and that are singular, and these and those are plural. We can also pair this and these as the “near” determiners, referring to things close to the speakers point of reference, and that and those are the “far” determiners, indicating things that are distant from the speaker.

demonstrative determiners with near and far

Near-far Determiners

This syntactic elegance goes along with the phonetic elegance of the singular words having short vowels and plurals having long one. There might be an argument to say that the diphthong in /ðəʊz/ could be /ɔ:/ but even that’s a long vowel sound.

The distinction of this versus that for near/far is historically recent – and “recent” means “developed in Middle English and not Old English. [1] And in the personal history of the child, both these words appear in the lexicon around 2 years and are high frequency. In fact, the word that is one of the highest frequency words in the English language – hence the need to make sure your kids can use it as early as possible.

Using the definition “demonstrative determiners” for this little group is actually a useful indicator of how best to think of them in terms of teaching: you need to “demonstrate” them. The simplest method is just to use objects and/or images that you can present singly or as a group, and that you can simultaneously have close to your client and distant.

Because the determiners are not concrete things, like “trucks” and “teddies” and “balls” and “sheep,” you have, or necessity, to teach them in a context along with other words. You can use your truck, teddy, ball, and sheep as long as you have them (a) close to the client and (b) referred to as “this truck” or “this teddy.”

You can also leverage the near/far distinction by teaching the determiners as pairs; so have “this truck” close to the kid and “that truck” on another table. Similarly, you can have a single toy sheep on one side of the client as “this sheep” but a mini flock of them on the other side of the client as “these sheep.”

When modeling the words, make sure you point. Pointing is crucial because this mirrors in space what is cognitively part of the concept behind the words; that they are used for  “demonstrating” or “showing” where something is. It’s also fine to use your Harry Potter wand (or your Hermione Granger for the girls!) to point with, or a light pointer. Rebels may want to use colored laser pointers, but don’t blame the Speech Dudes if the nannies at the FDA come screaming about how dangerous that is.

If you have any cool ways of teaching this magical cluster, let us know by commenting or sending an email.

That‘s it for this post!

1. Lass, R. (1992). Phonology and Morphology. In Norman Blake (Ed.) The Cambridge History of the English Language: Volume 2, 1066 – 1476. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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