I hate the word “this.” I have a good reason to, but try as I may, I’ve struggled to communicate to people exactly why. In my varied capacities as an editor and writing instructor, one note I write near-constantly is “clarify your ‘this.’” Even in the familiar setting of a classroom, the poor person on the other end of my edits may wonder what, exactly, is my beef with such a harmless word.
And admittedly, it probably is harmless. After all, if I see it so often in writing, then surely everyone else who writes or reads our beautiful mangled language would too. Right? And if we all see it in everyday writing, why would I pick that diminutive demonstrative as the bearer of my frustration?
I should stop here and point out that I have no issue with the colloquial use of “this” as a way of expressing agreement on social media. That “this” and I get along just fine. It serves its purpose, makes decent memes, and will inevitably change the course of our “professional” English a few decades hence.
But it’s when “this” appears in its natural state that I begin to squirm in my chair. My fingers quiver over the mouse, trying to decide if I should highlight it for the twelfth time in the millionth manuscript or—just for once—leave it well enough alone. It’s in those moments of existential crisis that I’ve thought I should sit down and try to tease out the thread of frustration I feel. I think, after years of hating “this,” I’m finally able to tell you why.
The “This” Experience
The simple answer has to do with clarity. But that simple answer isn’t really enough, because it’s a shorthand for something far more intricate and, well, human. In everyday conversations, we use the word “this” all the time. But if you stop to actually think about the circumstances where you select “this” from all the possible demonstrative pronouns available to you, you’ll notice something.
In nearly every instance (I would say every instance, but someone on the Internet will find an example to the contrary), you’ll notice that you’re adding to the word—supplementing it with a digit or eyebrow. Say for example you just found the funniest meme ever to be meme’d. You’re sitting at your desk looking at your computer and you want to share your discovery with the people around you. Without thinking, you blurt out to your coworkers, “Come look at this.”
At that moment, those who received your directive have no idea what “this” is. Only that it exists and is sufficiently interesting to merit you demand they leave their chairs and come. They’re in a kind of suspense—the kind that’s more evocative of Schrödinger’s cat than Hitchcock. Discovering whether the cat’s alive or dead or perched on top of a Roomba entails a level of physical closeness. You’ve invited them into your space—your frame of reference—and it’s the only way they’ll be able to share in the experience with you.
There’s a kind of hospitality to the word “this.” Especially when we use it as a marker of something we want to share with others. The pronoun’s inability to adequately communicate without a physical clarifier invites people into our space whenever we use it—if they’re not already close by. So it would make sense, then, that if we wanted to lay out the welcome mat to our readers and invite them into the intimate spaces of our mind, “this” would be a great demonstrative. Right?
I don’t think so.
Think for a moment and rewind the scenario with the meme above in your mind. Play it out differently this time, removing the additional signal (a pointing finger for example) from the scene. You say, “Come look at this,” and your coworkers move to look, but when they arrive you provide no indication what you want them to see. The first question out of their mouths very well may be, “What am I supposed to be looking at?”
What was at first an invitation to hospitality near-instantly becomes a slight. A bait-and-switch. The physical closeness becomes uncomfortable because there’s no reason for it. To break the awkwardness, people will often ask for clarification: Give me a reason to be here, standing over your shoulder.
I suppose some would argue that the lack of clarity is inherent in all pronouns. The demonstrative “that,” for instance, often requires clarification too. But I would counter that the word “this” is radically different to its brother “that.” “That” points others away from ourselves—out of our space and proximity. It might need a qualifier, but the potential for discomfort simply isn’t there. Annoyance, maybe, but we tolerate being annoyed from a distance.
The problem becomes far more extreme, however, when the conversation moves from spoken word to written. In an article, for example, a writer has no way of indicating the object of “this” like we do when we’re in the same room talking. Unless an editor deigns to allow drawn-in arrows pointing at the antecedent, chances are readers will wonder exactly what the writer meant by “this.”
It leaves the reader standing uncomfortably close to the writer, wondering what they’re supposed to be looking at. Sure, the writer may have invited them into their mind’s eye, but there’s no clear indication what they’re doing there. It’s a hospitable invitation maybe, but a confusing and uncomfortable one. The last thing a writer needs is a readership that feels cheated or stupid because they just can’t figure out what “this” actually is.
The Elimination of “This”
If I’m honest (and I have no reason to lie), there really is no reason to use the word “this,” in long-form writing, when simply flipping the demonstrative to the much more comfortable “that” accomplishes everything a writer may need. It points far more clearly to text that has come either before or will come after. “That” may still carry a bit of the indistinctness inherent in demonstratives, but at least it’s not awkward.
Eliminating “thises” wherever possible goes a long way to avoid the inhospitable discomfort of standing in a writer’s mind with no clear reason for being there. But more than that, eliding the thises forces a writer to move toward clarity—toward saying what they mean, showing and not telling. After all, the concrete thing a writer means by “this” is usually far more interesting to read than the pronoun.
If, as a writer, you decide to avoid “this,” by force of necessity, you’ll end up having to think of your reader far more often. You’ll have to become intentional in your word choice and even your grammar. In a world full of double-speak and biting irony, that clear sincerity might be the most hospitable thing you can offer.
Cover image by Zachary Keimig