Demonstrative pronouns or determiners?

Some types of pronoun and determiner are very similar and it can be difficult to tell them apart. Demonstrative pronouns and determiners fall into this category.

In fact, the four words we use as demonstrative pronouns are exactly the same words we use as demonstrative determiners:

  • this
  • that
  • these
  • those

These words, whether used as pronouns or determiners, tell us where something is in relation to us. We’ll see what we mean by this as we continue. But let’s have a look first at how we can tell if one of these words is a demonstrative pronoun or a demonstrative determiner.

To do this, we first need to recap quickly what we mean by pronouns and determiners in the first place.

What is a pronoun?

A pronoun is a word which replaces a noun or another pronoun.

And that’s it – a pronoun quite simply does the job of a noun when we don’t want to, don’t need to, or can’t, say the noun for some reason. This reason could be to avoid long-winded sentences containing every single noun every time we want to refer to it. Or it could be because it’s already clear which noun we’re talking about and so we don’t need to say it.

What is a determiner?

A determiner is a word that comes before a noun to introduce it or tell us something about it.

So whereas pronouns replace nouns, determiners introduce them.

Let’s see this in practice by looking at some sentences with demonstrative pronouns and demonstrative determiners.

Demonstrative pronouns

As we said above, pronouns replace nouns in a sentence. Here are a couple of sentences, firstly without any pronouns.

  • Look at the rain!
  • I want a pair of shiny boots.

Now let’s try replacing the nouns (rain and boots) with some demonstrative pronouns:

  • Look at that!
  • I want a pair of those.

We can imagine someone pointing to, or gesturing towards, the rain and the boots when they say these sentences. And that’s why they can use the pronouns instead of having to say the nouns. By pointing out what they’re referring to, it’s clear to the person listening which nouns the pronouns are replacing.

So what are the differences between the four demonstrative pronouns, “this”, “that”, “these” and “those”?

  • Firstly, we use “this” and “that” to replace singular or non-countable nouns (like rain) and “these” and “those” to replace plural nouns (like shoes).
  • Secondly, as we know these pronouns tell us where something is in relation to us. We use “this” and “these” when the thing we’re pointing out is quite close to us, and “that” and “those” when the thing we’re pointing out is further away (like the rain and the shoes in the examples above).

Demonstrative determiners

Determiners, as we mentioned above, introduce nouns rather than replace them. Let’s have a look at a couple of sentences similar to the ones we saw with demonstrative pronouns.

  • Look at that rain!
  • I want a pair of those shoes.

This time the noun stays in the sentence. We haven’t replaced it, we’ve just introduced it with one of the four words “this, “that”, “these” and “those”.

So when we use these words as determiners, the person listening doesn’t need to know which noun we’re referring to, because we tell them directly – it’s still right there in the sentence! The only purpose of the determiners is to show the location of the noun in relation to us. And the same thing applies here as it did with the pronouns – “this” and “these” tell us the thing is close to us, “that” and “those tell us it’s further away.

We’re in effect giving them two pretty clear clues about what we’re talking about – we tell them where the thing is in relation to us, and then we tell them the actual thing we’re talking about.

Using the words as pronouns, however, the person listening doesn’t know which thing we’re talking about unless we point or gesture as well. If I say:

  • Look at that.

…while staying completely still, the other person would have a hard job figuring out what I want them to look at. If I say the same thing while pointing or gesturing, it makes it a lot easier!

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  1. Actually, the sentence “I want a pair of shiny boots” *does* have a pronoun, “I”. Of course, it does not have a demonstrative pronoun.

    • Avatar photo

      Yes, good point :-)

    • “I” is a personal pronoun – nominative in that very sentence.


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