Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeAnglophonia25The demonstrative THAT and the el...

The demonstrative THAT and the elaboration of reference: a case of linguistic accommodation

Élise Mignot


We examine the determiners and pronouns THIS and THAT, concentrating mostly on THAT, which, according to our data, signals that the reference or, in some cases, the process of categorization, is in progress (whereas with THIS, reference and categorisation are stable). One indication of that is the greater length of THAT noun phrases. Others are the contexts in which THAT occurs, e.g. definitions, or the creation of a sub-category. Our set of data is taken from the novel Lolita (Nabokov 1955), in which we conducted an inventory of THIS and THAT noun phrases (877 occurrences).

Top of page

Full text


1In this paper, we reconsider the demonstratives THIS and THAT. We take into account both (main) uses of the words, i.e. as determiners (that book) and pronouns (I want that). The pronouns THIS and THAT are sometimes called ‘fused determiner heads’ (rather than pronouns) (Payne & Huddleston 2002: 412). We will not dwell on this terminological issue, as it is not crucial for the present study. Our conclusions hold for both determiners and pronouns.

2We focus on the demonstrative THAT. We aim to show that it signals that the reference is evolving. Reflecting on THAT involves comparing it with THIS, as the two forms belong to the micro-system of demonstratives. This micro-system could admittedly also be seen as including THE and IT, but we focus on the difference between THIS and THAT, which are often compared and contrasted, e.g. by Stirling & Huddleston (2002: 1504). Their common features are definiteness and the fact that they both have a ‘central deictic use’ (Stirling & Huddleston 2002: 1505). They have to do with ostensiveness, whether literally or not (Bar-Hillel 1954; Benveniste 1974: 79-88). We will consider both uses of THIS and THAT, i.e. deictic and anaphoric, which may in fact be seen as the opposite points of a continuum (see e.g. Cornish 2011: 212) and his notion of ‘anadeixis’).

3The difference between THIS and THAT is most often interpreted in terms of proximity vs. distance, whether spatial, temporal, or enunciative (i.e. speaker attitude, either positive or negative) (Bouscaren & Chuquet 1987: 93-95; Fraser & Joly 1979, 1980; Stirling & Huddleston 2002: 1504; Quirk et al. 1985: §6.43). Rotgé & Lapaire (2004: 58-59) treat them slightly differently, interpreting THAT in terms of ‘closure’ and THIS in terms of ‘non-closure’. It seems that although these various characterizations apply to a number of instances of THIS and THAT, none of them works for all, so that the difference between the two demonstratives is still worth investigating. Let us examine for example the following sentence:

  • 1 We highlight the relevant occurrences.


The road now stretched across country, and it occurred to me, not by way of protest, not as a symbol, or anything like that, but merely as a novel experience – that since I had disregarded all laws of humanity I might as well disregard the rules of traffic. (Nabokov 1955: 304)1

4It may seem at first sight that THAT has to do with the negation (not by way of protest, not as a symbol, or anything like that) – which seems to reject the referent of THAT outside the speaker’s sphere. However, the argument does not seem to be valid, since the same pronoun would also be correct if we did not have a negation: the road now stretched across country, and it occurred to me, as a way of protest, or a symbol, or something like that (…). Similarly, if we restrict ourselves to an analysis of THIS and THAT in terms of proximity vs. distance, it seems difficult to account for the following occurrences:


Her long brown legs were about as attractive to me as those of a chestnut mare. (Nabokov 1955: 88)


I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as those that now radiated before us, across the crazy quilt of 48 states. (Nabokov 1955: 150)

5We can argue that in these examples, THAT refers anaphorically to an entity presented as commonly held, but this could also be true of THIS, in e.g. I know this story, where both the speaker and the co-speaker know that a story has been told. Something to be noted, however, which can ultimately help us understand THAT, is the of-complement in example (2), and the relative clause in (3). In such cases, the use of THIS seems very restricted, if not impossible, as illustrated in the following manipulations:


*Her long brown legs were about as attractive to me as these of a chestnut mare.


*I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as these that now radiated before us, across the crazy quilt of 48 states.

6We argue that in these two examples, THAT is required because the reference is being constructed. We treat this phenomenon as a case of linguistic accommodation, in the sense of Dragojevik and Giles (2014), Giles, Coupland and Coupland (1991: 1-68) and Giles (2016), i.e. ‘talk in action’. We aim to show that with THAT, the reference is evolving, or in other words, in a process of elaboration, while with THIS, on the contrary, it is presented as stable and non-problematic.

7All examples are taken from the novel Lolita (Nabokov 1955). The choice of a whole novel (rather than an electronic multi-sources one such as the COCA) is dictated by the need for a good understanding of the context. It is admittedly possible to have access to some context in electronic corpora such as the BNC or COCA, but not to the extent of a whole novel, which does prove useful in this study. It must be granted, however, that one drawback of this approach is that the conclusions of the study will hold for one novel only. They will then need to be tested on different corpora.

8All occurrences of THIS and THAT (determiners and pronouns) in the novel were listed. There are 317 instances of THIS (182 determiners and 135 pronouns), and 560 occurrences of THAT (455 determiners and 105 pronouns). The figures show that, at least in this novel, THAT is much more likely to occur as a determiner than as a pronoun.

Table 1 Number of occurrences of THIS and THAT noun phrases













9First of all we look at the internal dependents of THIS and THAT noun phrases, i.e. the elements that are part of the nominal but are not head (Payne & Huddleston 2002: 329-332) and describe differences between THIS and THAT noun phrases. Then we examine THIS and show that it is used to confirm a pre-established reference. Finally, we turn back to THAT and observe that it signals that the reference is seen in a process of elaboration.

1. The internal dependents of THIS and THAT noun phrases

1.1 THAT noun phrases are longer than THIS noun phrases

10THAT noun phrases tend to be longer than those that include THIS. They include more internal dependents, which may be modifiers or complements.

If we first look at the cases where THIS and THAT are determiners, we notice that noun phrases including THIS contain on average 0.9 words in addition to the determiner itself and the noun (e.g. all this mess). The most typical THIS noun phrase is ‘THIS + noun’, with no other constituent.

On the contrary, noun phrases including the determiner THAT contain on average 3.4% words in addition to the noun and the determiner. They are therefore longer than the noun phrases that take THIS as a determiner, as appears in the following table.

Table 2 Respective length of THIS and THAT noun phrases

Determiner THIS

Determiner THAT

Number of words in addition to the determiner and head



Minimal noun phrases of the ‘THIS + noun’ type represent 59.3% of all noun phrases which include the determiner THIS, whereas the ‘THAT + noun’ pattern represents only 32.1% of noun phrases which include the determiner THAT.

Table 3 Percentage of minimal noun phrases with THIS or THAT as determiners

Minimal NPs (determiner + head)

THIS + noun

THAT + noun

Percentage of NPs with THIS or THAT as determiners



The pattern ‘THIS/THAT + Noun’ is more frequent for THIS than for THAT. It is again apparent that noun phrases where THIS (as opposed to THAT) is the determiner are shorter.

11If we now look at noun phrases where THIS or THAT are pronouns, we also note that the ones whose head is THAT are longer. Noun phrases headed by THIS take on average 0.1 words in addition to the pronoun. This means that in the vast majority of cases the noun phrase consists of just THIS. To be more precise, in the few cases where THIS does not occur on its own (13 out of 135 noun phrases), there is only one element in addition to the pronoun, and in our set of data that element is always all (the noun phrase being all this).

The noun phrases headed by the pronoun THAT include on average 1.9 words in addition to the head.

Table 4 Number of words in addition to THIS or THAT as pronouns

THIS as pronoun

THAT as pronoun

Number of words in addition to the head



The following table synthesizes tables 2 and 4.

Table 5 Respective lengths of THIS and THAT noun phrases







Number of words in addition to THIS or THAT (not counting the head when THIS is a determiner)








It therefore appears that overall, THAT noun phrases are longer than their THIS counterparts. They include an average of 5.3 words in addition to THAT (while THIS phrases contain on average 1 extra word. We interpret this as a sign that with THAT the construction of reference is in process (rather than presented as a finished product).

1.2 Obligatory dependents with pronoun THAT

12It is also worth noting that the dependents occurring in noun phrases including the pronoun THAT are obligatory, both from a syntactic and semantic point of view. In the two following examples, the noun phrase would not be acceptable without the dependents of the head.

  • 2 We underline the dependents.


Her long brown legs were about as attractive to me as those of a chestnut mare. (Nabokov 1955: 88)2


I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as those that now radiated before us, across the crazy quilt of forty-eight states. (Nabokov 1955: 150)

13In comparison, the sequences *Her long brown legs were about as attractive to me as those# and *I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as those# would not be interpretable (in the same context, with the same meaning).

1.3 Types of dependents

14The dependents that are found in co-occurrence with THAT or with THIS are adjectives, relative clauses, and prepositional phrases. Again, they are more frequent with THAT than with THIS.

1.3.1 Adjectives

15Adjectives occur more frequently with THAT than with THIS, which partially accounts for the greater length of THAT noun phrases. 29.1% of noun phrases that contain the determiner THIS include one or several adjectives, whereas for THAT the proportion rises to 42%.

Table 6 Number of adjectives in THIS and THAT noun phrases



Percentage of THIS/THAT phrases which include an adjective



1.3.2 Relative clauses

16Relative clauses are another type of dependents that contribute to the relative length of THAT noun phrases. In our corpus, there is no example of a relative clause associated with a THIS noun phrase, whereas 10% of THAT noun phrases (where THAT is either a determiner or a pronoun) include one.

Table 7 Relative clauses in THIS and THAT noun phrases



Percentage of THIS and THAT phrases with relative clauses



We also note that the relative clauses associated with the pronoun THAT are obligatory.


Speaking of sharp turns; we almost ran over a meddlesome suburban dog (one of those who lie in wait for cars) as we swerved into Lawn Street. (Nabokov 1955: 36)

In this example, THAT is a pronoun, and the relative clause cannot be suppressed (*one of those#) without altering the meaning, which would then be ostensive. Some relative clauses occurring with the determiner THAT are equally indispensible to the meaning of the sentence:


She was, obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul (…). (Nabokov 1955: 37)

17Again, the alternative one of those#, in the same context, would not be appropriate. In some other cases, the relative clause could be suppressed, but it would then be obligatory to keep at least one dependent in the noun phrase. For instance, in the following excerpt, if we omit the relative clause, we have to keep the prepositional phrase on the mountain top in the Oriental tale in order for the noun phrase to remain acceptable.


What stopped me was the awful feeling that if I meddled with fate in any way and tried to rationalize her fantastic gift, that gift would be snatched away like that palace on the mountain top in the Oriental tale which vanished whenever a prospective owner asked its custodian how come a strip of sunset sky was clearly visible from afar between black rock and foundation. (Nabokov 1955: 171)

1.3.3 Prepositional phrases

18Like relative clauses, prepositional phrases are more numerous in THAT noun phrases than in their THIS counterparts. Among the noun phrases including the pronoun THAT, ten (0.1%) include prepositional complements, whereas we find none in the noun phrases that include the pronoun THIS. The pronoun THIS simply cannot be followed by a prepositional complement: that of any vulgar untidy highschool girl cannot be transformed into *this of any vulgar untidy highschool girl (…). The difference in figures seems very small, but it is important to note that in the case of THAT, these prepositional complements are mandatory. They cannot be omitted without affecting the meaning and the grammaticality (in the same context) of the sentence, as illustrated in the following example.


Her complexion was now that of any vulgar untidy highschool girl who applies shared cosmetics with grubby fingers to an unwashed face and does not mind what soiled texture, what pustulate epidermis comes in contact with her skin. (Nabokov 1955: 202)

Moreover, 20% of noun phrases containing the determiner THAT include a prepositional complement, while this is the case for 7.7% of their THIS counterparts.

Table 8 Prepositional phrases in THIS and THAT noun phrases







Percentage of THIS or THAT phrases which include a prepositional phrase





1.4 Intermediary conclusion

19From this descriptive and quantitative approach, we conclude that noun phrases containing THAT (whether determiner or pronoun) tend to be longer than their THIS counterparts. We also note that with THAT some dependencies are obligatory, which is never the case with THIS.

20We now aim to interpret the data. It seems that THAT indicates that the reference is seen as evolving, illustrating the previously mentioned accommodation process. With THAT, reference is less stable than with THIS, which may account for the fact that more words are needed. THIS and THAT both designate (they are demonstratives), but one may designate for a variety of reasons. One may wish to confirm the representation of a referent, or to modify it. Cornish (2011: 111-112) argues that demonstratives convey something of the representation of the referent, which may be viewed as evolving. However he does not draw a distinction between THIS and THAT on this criterion, and this is what we aim to do. We will now argue that THIS designates and confirms (the reference is stable).

2. THIS: a stable reference

21In order to illustrate the fact that THIS takes up a referent while, at the same time, confirming the way it is represented, we list some situations in which the confirmation context seems clear, and where we have THIS (rather than THAT).

2.1 Obligatory THIS to denote what someone is writing

22When a letter, journal, or even a whole story that one is in the process of writing is denoted, THIS is preferred to THAT. There are numerous examples of this use of THIS in our corpus. In examples (10) to (13), the speaker (Charlotte Haze) refers to a letter she is writing.


Now, my dearest, dearest, mon cher, cher monsieur, you have read this; now you know. (Nabokov 1955: 67)


Please, please, leave at once, now, do not even read this absurd note to the end. (Nabokov 1955: 67)


Let me rave and ramble for a teeny little while more, my dearest, since I know this letter has by now been torn by you (…) (Nabokov 1955: 67)


My dearest, your curiosity must be well satisfied if you have ignored my request and read this letter to the bitter end. (Nabokov 1955: 68)

We also observe in the novel Lolita that the narrator systematically refers to what he is writing by means of THIS, whether what is taken up is just a sequence of a few lines, or the whole narrative. In examples (14) and (15) a paragraph is taken up.


Jean, whatever, wherever you are, forgive me all this, parenthesis included. (Nabokov 1955: 104)


All this I rationalize now. (Nabokov 1955: 104)

In the first example, the expression parenthesis included shows that what the speaker is talking about is the portion of text that he has just written. In other cases, it is the whole narrative that THIS refers back to.


Let us go on with this curious tale. (Nabokov 1955: 75)

In the very last pages of the book, we find the following occurrences.


This then is my story. (Nabokov 1955: 306)


Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. (Nabokov 1955: 307)

23In these contexts we have no instances of THAT. It therefore seems that THIS is obligatory, or at least strongly favoured, when one designates what one is writing. And in these cases, the speaker takes up the referent in order to stabilize it, to confirm what has been written. The representation of the referent is not seen as evolving. THIS is also used to close a list.

2.2 THIS to summarize a list

24This type of THIS is of the same endophoric type as before, but presents one further characteristic, namely taking up a list and summarizing it.


Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth. These were the obvious items in her list of beloved things. (Nabokov 1955: 146)


(…) far from being an indolent partie de plaisir, our tour was a hard, twisted, teleological growth, whose sole raison d’être (these French clichés are symptomatic) was to keep my companion in passable humor from kiss to kiss. (Nabokov 1955: 152)

Here too the reference is stable. THIS does not add anything to the list, it takes it up as it is.

2.3 THIS in reference to a previously described situation

25Yet another context that seems to strongly favour THIS is when a previously described situation is taken up.


You will dwell, my Lolita will dwell (come here, my brown flower) with thirty-nine other dopes in a dirty dormitory (no, allow me, please) under the supervision of hideous matrons. This is the situation, this is the choice. Don’t you think that under the circumstances Dolores Haze had better stick to her old man? (Nabokov 1955: 149)

The noun choice involves a limited number of possibilities. In this context there are only two, and they are explicitly stated: either Lolita remains with the speaker, or he sends her to an orphanage. There is no modification of the referent when denoted by THIS.

2.4 Intermediary conclusion

26If one of the reasons why we designate is to confirm and stabilize, it seems that THIS does just that. Indeed THIS seems to be favoured when we speak about what we are writing, when we summarize a list, or when we take up something that has just been explicitly stated. THIS occurs when the reference is confirmed. We will now look at how THAT designates.

3. Designation with THAT: the elaboration of reference

27THIS and THAT are both used to designate a referent, and the specificity of THAT is that it involves an evolution in the reference process.

3.1 Interpretation of the greater length of THAT noun phrases

28We have seen before (in the first section) that the noun phrases containing THAT are longer than those containing THIS. Moreover, when a noun phrase that includes a demonstrative takes obligatory dependents, THAT is more frequent than THIS. This is again illustrated in the following examples.


Oh, you cannot imagine (as I had never imagined) what these women of principles are. (Nabokov 1955: 83)


(…) she theatrically drew aside a curtain to reveal what I judged was that part of the room where a large and unfastidious family usually slept. (Nabokov 1955: 24)

In example (22), of principles could be omitted without compromising the grammaticality of the sentence. THIS is deictic, nothing more is required to identify the referent, and the reference process is complete. When THAT is used, on the contrary, something else is needed, and the reference is seen as being constructed.

29In (23), the prepositional phrase cannot be removed. In the above-given examples, THIS and THAT were determiners, but we observe a similar phenomenon with the pronouns. We noted before (in section 1) that in our corpus there is no instance of the pronoun THIS in association with a complement. This seems to be a grammatical constraint. On the contrary, there are several examples of the pronoun THAT in co-occurrence with complements, and they are sometimes obligatory, as in (24), where the complement of intelligent European pre-adolescents cannot be omitted (in the given context):


(…) our brains were tuned the way those of intelligent European pre-adolescents were in our day and set (Nabokov 1955: 12).

We interpret these phenomena (i.e. the greater length of THAT noun phrases, and the fact that obligatory dependents occur with THAT but not with THIS) as a sign that with THAT, the reference is evolving. THAT is not sufficient to designate the referent, and more signs are needed to further (and ensure) the reference process.

3.2 The role of adjectives

30We have seen (section 1.3.1) that THAT noun phrases are longer than those in THIS, and that one manifestation of this is the greater number of adjectives they contain (on the role of adjectives in THIS and THAT noun phrases see also Danon-Boileau and De Cola 1989). We now return to these adjectives with a more qualitative (rather than quantitative) approach. In the following extract, we have two occurrences of THAT, associated with descriptive and evaluative adjectives.


What special suspicions could I have? None indeed – but those muddy, moony eyes of hers, that singular warmth emanating from her! (Nabokov 1955: 213)

31The speaker, Humbert Humbert, thinks that Lolita is lying to him, and attempts to identify signs that corroborate this impression (eyes, warmth). But these signs are quite vague, and he tries to make sense of them. Lolita’s eyes are difficult to describe, the reference is in the process of construction. It is not just the eyes that provide a clue that Lolita is lying, but the quality of her eyes (muddy, moody). The adjectives (two in a row) also reveal the evolving nature of the reference. The speaker accommodates the category to his communicative purposes.

32Beyond the mere figures (the number of adjectives), we also observe that evaluative adjectives, in particular, are much more frequent with THAT than with THIS. The distinction between determinative, evaluative, descriptive and classifying adjectives is borrowed from Cotte (1996: 133-138). In the terms of Paradis (1997, 2001), we are dealing with scalar and extreme adjectives. 26.3% of the adjectives occurring in THAT noun phrases are evaluative, whereas the proportion of evaluative adjectives in THIS nouns phrases is 18.9%.

Table 9 Evaluative adjectives in THIS and THAT noun phrases



Proportion of evaluative adjectives



33In our corpus, the evaluative adjectives are the following: miserable (6 occurrences), lovely (3), maddening (3), dazzling (2), mad (2), intoxicating, amusing, ivory-smooth, awful (2), dull, thrilling, disgusting, weird, poetical, strange (2), monstrous (2), accursed, dreadful, beloved, filthy, nice, dismal, divine, admirable (2), wild, extravagant, absurd, kindly, gloomy, singular, repulsive, splendid, horrible. It makes sense to find more evaluative adjectives in THAT noun phrases. These adjectives, as their name indicates, convey an evaluation (from the speaker, most of the time, or someone else, whose point of view is relayed by the speaker). They are more speaker-oriented than descriptive or classifying adjectives, and may be seen as the trace of the speaker’s search for an adequate characterization of the referent. They therefore participate in the construction of reference, and this accounts for the fact that they are more numerous in THAT noun phrases.

In other cases, a THAT noun phrase refers to an entity which is viewed in opposition to another. The context of opposition is the reason why the reference is seen as evolving.

3.3 THAT and the notion of opposition

34On the surface of things, the following examples seem quite similar (demonstrative + proper noun Lolita). But the specific characteristics of each, and the meaning of THAT, can be better understood if we look at the context. The noun phrase this Lolita is to be found in examples (26), (27), (28), and that Lolita in (29).

  • 3 We underline what is relevant for our analysis of the excerpt.


A little later, of course, she, this nouvelle, this Lolita, my Lolita, was to eclipse completely her prototype. (Nabokov 1955: 40)


And what is most singular is that she, this Lolita, my Lolita, has individualized the writer’s ancient lust. (Nabokov 1955: 44-45)


While I stand gripping the bars, you, happy neglected child, will be given a choice of various dwelling places, all more or less the same, the correctional school, the reformatory, the juvenile detention home, or one of those admirable girls’ protectories where you knit things, and sing hymns, and have rancid pancakes on Sundays. You will go there, Lolita – my Lolita, this Lolita will leave her Catallus and go there, as the wayward girl you are. (Nabokov 1955: 149)


I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita for ever; but I also knew she would not be for ever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet (…). The words ‘for ever’ referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood. The Lolita whose iliac crests had not yet flared, the Lolita that today I could touch and hear and see, the Lolita of the strident voice and the rich brown hair – of the bangs and the swirls at the sides and the curls at the back, and the vulgar vocabulary – ‘revolting’, ‘super’, ‘luscious’, ‘goon’, ‘drip’that Lolita, my Lolita, poor Catallus would lose for ever. (Nabokov 1955: 65)3

The co-occurrence of this Lolita with my Lolita is worth noting, but as it is found with a THIS phrase as well as with a THAT phrase, we cannot make use of it to account for either of these demonstratives.

35When the noun phrase that Lolita is used (in the last example), one Lolita is opposed to another, as if there were several ‘Lolitas’ within the same person (several facets to one individual), i.e. the one who is a young girl, and the one who is becoming an adult. That Lolita refers to the old Lolita (with her various, partially left unexpressed, characteristics), the one who is gradually disappearing, and who stands in contrast to a new, more mature, Lolita. The representation of Lolita is therefore seen as evolving: the referent is not new (the speaker and the addressee have known Lolita all along), but the reference process (what we associate with the referent, the way we view her) is dynamic, and intercepted in the course of its (re-)elaboration. In a similar way, in the following example, that’s all I know means that there is more to know, and that the reference is therefore not complete.


Dick is promised a big job in Alaska in his very specialized corner of the mechanic field, that’s all I know about it, but it’s really grand. (Nabokov 1955: 264)

THAT refers back to the fact that Dick found a job in Alaska, but this piece of information stands in contrast to other possible pieces of information, that the speaker (Lolita) does not have. There is a series of possible things to know, and what Lolita mentions is one of those things. The contrast being what is known and what is not known is created at the time of speaking. The reference is in the process of elaboration. In the following example, Lolita makes sure she understands her interlocutor’s offer.


You mean you will give us that money only if I go to a motel. Is that what you mean? (Nabokov 1955: 276)

Lolita states what she thinks her interlocutor means. She is not certain that she has understood correctly, and is processing the information she has just been given (because it is shocking and unacceptable to her). THAT signals that the reference is being mentally reviewed, it is viewed as emerging against the background of other possible interpretation.

36These observations are in keeping with research conducted on French demonstratives from a psycholinguistic point of view. Danon-Boileau (1990) noted that a child suffering from dysphasia and who had lost the ability to designate once used the demonstrative ça because he could see an opposition between two situations. The child, noticing a new watch on his interlocutor’s wrist, said C’est nouveau, ça (‘That is new’), while pointing at the watch. The demonstrative involved a notion of opposition.

3.4 New denominations

37In some cases THAT occurs when a new denomination is found for a previously mentioned referent. It is again clear that THAT signals that the reference is evolving. This is the case in the following context, where THIS is unlikely to occur.


Lo recalled that scarecrow of a house, the solitude, the soggy old pastures, the wind, the bloated wilderness with an energy of disgust that distorted her mouth and fattened her half-revealed tongue. (Nabokov 1955: 147)

The conventional denomination of the referent is ‘house’, but it is called a ‘scarecrow’, which is a more personal, subjective, denomination. The transition between the two is signalled by the preposition of (Cotte 1985). Again, the reference is seen as evolving. When we find a demonstrative in this type of of construction, it is typically THAT (rather than THIS).

3.5 Definition contexts

38If THAT, rather than THIS, tends to occur when the reference is being constructed, it is not surprising to find it in contexts of definition, such as the following.


(…) there occur maidens who (…) reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac (…)). (Nabokov 1955: 16)

THAT takes up nymphic, in order to modify its meaning. For the narrator, in this context, ‘nymphic’ means ‘demoniac’ (it is probably not how everyone would define this word). The meaning of ‘nymphic’ is being clarified, as the narrator uses it in a special way. In this type of context, where a new meaning, or element of meaning, is emerging, the pronoun THAT, rather than THIS, is mandatory. THAT signals that nymphic is taken up anaphorically, but only to be re-defined, or at least clarified.

3.6 THAT in verbless sentences

39In our corpus, in all verbless sentences which include a demonstrative, we find THAT rather than THIS. Examples are:


Those disgusting prying kids! (Nabokov 1955: 88)


That old woman in black who sat down next to me on my bench, on my rack of joy (a nymphet was groping under me for a lost marble), and asked me if I had stomach-ache, the insolent hag. (Nabokov 1955: 51)

We have seen that THAT signals that the reference is viewed in a process of elaboration. Verbless sentences signal that the construction of reference is still going on, as they convey that the speaker is not in a position to endorse fully the propositional content (which a conjugated verb would imply) (Delorme 2011, 2016). THAT is therefore more likely to occur than THIS.

3.7 A new (sub-)category

THAT may be the trace of the creation of a new category (or sub-category).


(…) a meddelsome suburban dog (one of those who lie in wait for cars (…)) (Nabokov 1955: 36)

40In this example, THAT refers back to a noun (or, nominal), rather than a noun phrase or a clause. The demonstrative those takes up dog – although the number is adjusted (from singular to plural) for the sake of agreement. It is anaphoric, but the anaphora concerns the category, not the referent (i.e., not the meddlesome dog which has just been mentioned). The speaker creates the category of ‘dogs which lie in wait for cars’, which results from the generalization that stems from a particular instance of dog (a meddlesome dog). THAT, rather than THIS, is required for this purpose. The following example (previously quoted) is rather similar.


Our brains were tuned the way those of intelligent European pre-adolescents were in our day and set… (Nabokov 1955: 12)

Those takes up the noun brains, not our brains. It is therefore the category denoted by the noun that is evolving, yielding a sub-category, that of ‘brains of intelligent European pre-adolescents’. Still in this perspective, it seems worth going back to the first example quoted in this paper, as the category that is created is not as obvious as in the two preceding extracts.


The road now stretched across country, and it occurred to me – not by way of protest, not as a symbol, or anything like that, but merely as a novel experience – that since I had disregarded all laws of humanity I might as well disregard the rules of traffic. (Nabokov 1955: 304)

41As in the previous examples, THIS would not be acceptable in this context. It must also be noted that THAT refers back to both protest and symbol, rather than just the second noun, symbol. It seems to subsume protest and symbol, and mean more than the sum of the two. It denotes a (rather vague) category, which, amongst other entities, includes ‘protest’ and ‘symbol’. We also observe that THAT occurs in the singular, although it takes up two words, protest and symbol. The singular form seems to indicate that the two elements are seen as one. The two elements are part of one (rather vague) category, which is emerging in the speaker’s mind. A new category is being created, even if it does not really have a name.

3.8 THIS and THAT in succession

42When the two demonstratives occur in succession, THIS precedes THAT.


(…) this way and that. (Nabokov 1955: 54)


She furiously resented my calling her attention to this or that enchanting detail of landscape (Nabokov 1955: 150)

In both cases, the demonstratives make sense together (neither can be omitted). We argue that THAT comes after THIS because this corresponds to the cognitive process we have tried to describe: THIS signals that the reference is stable, while THAT signals that it is evolving. If we have two demonstratives in a series, it makes sense to have THAT in second position, as a way to further the reference process.


43We have tried to show that with THAT the reference is seen as evolving. The arguments that enabled us to reach this conclusion are the following:

  • THAT noun phrases are longer than their THIS counterparts. More signs are needed, precisely because the reference is evolving. The evidence for that admittedly comes from one novel, and will need to be confirmed by larger corpora, in order to check that it is not a stylistic characteristic of Nabokov’s. Exploratory studies have been conducted, and seem to confirm the initial results – they need to be more systematic.

  • Evaluative adjectives are more common with THAT than with THIS, again because that is a way to signal the evolution of the reference.

  • THAT often involves a notion of opposition. A referent contrasts with another, and THAT signals the process of differentiation.

  • THAT may signal a new denomination, another way of categorizing a referent.

  • We find THAT in contexts of definition – where the definition is being elaborated on, or made more accurate.

  • THAT, rather than THIS, is to be found in verbless sentences. Indeed, these sentences are themselves a sign that the reference process is not complete, but, on the contrary, is still evolving.

  • THAT enables the creation of sub-categories, which stand in contrast to previously established ones. The demonstrative signals the differentiation process.

  • Finally, when we have a succession of demonstratives, THAT comes last. This can also be interpreted as a sign that THAT signals that the reference process is evolving.

44These phenomena, and their interpretation, can be seen as a case of linguistic accommodation. The reference evolves in order to accommodate the communicative needs of the speaker and/or the hearer. Without this kind of tools, and the cognitive operations they signal, texts could not unfold.

Top of page


Bar-Hillel, Yehoshuha. “Indexical Expressions.” Mind 63 (1954): 359-376.

Benveniste, Émile. « L’appareil formel de l’énonciation. » Problèmes de linguistique générale 2. Paris : Gallimard, [1974] 1993, 79-88.

Bouscaren, Janine et Jean Chuquet. Grammaire et textes anglais. Guide pour l’analyse linguistique. Paris : Ophrys, 1987.

Cornish, Francis. « Indexicaux, discours et mémoire discursive : ce que les premiers révèlent du second et de la troisième. » Linx 62-63 (2010) : 111-133. URL : < > ; DOI : 10.4000/linx.1377.

Cotte, Pierre. « A fine figure of a man, un amour de petite fille. » Sigma 8 (1985) : 73-107.

Cotte, Pierre. L’explication grammaticale de textes anglais. Paris : PUF, 1996.

Danon-Boileau, Laurent. « Ce que “ça” veut dire : les enseignements de l’observation clinique. » In M.-A. Morel et L. Danon-Boileau (éds), La deixis. Colloque en Sorbonne. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1992, 414-425.

Danon-Boileau, Laurent et Martine De Cola. « This, that et les Adjectifs : construction de la référence. » Cahiers de Recherche en Grammaire Anglaise, Tome 4 (1989) : 131-147.

Delorme, Benjamin. « Nouveaux éléments sur la métalangue naturelle : le cas de la phrase averbale existentielle négative en anglais. » Syntaxe et sémantique, n°11 (2011) : 141-151.

Delorme, Benjamin. « La forme averbale dans les proverbes français et anglais : quand l’absence de conjugaison tient lieu d’argument d’autorité. » In S. Viellard, Études et travaux, vol. 1. Proverbes et stéréotypes : forme, formes et contextes. Paris : Eur’Orbem éditions, 2016, 71-89.

Dragojevic, Marko and Howard Giles. “Language and interpersonal communication: Their intergroup dynamics.” In C. R. Berger (ed.), Handbook of interpersonal communication. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2014, 29-51.

Fraser, Thomas et André Joly. 1979. « Le système de la deixis (1). Esquisse d’une théorie d’expression en anglais. » Modèles linguistiques I-2 (1979) : 97-157.

Fraser, Thomas et André Joly. « Le système de la deixis (2). Endophore et cohésion discursive en anglais. » Modèles linguistiques II-2 (1980) : 22-51.

Giles, Howard (ed.). Communication Accommodation Theory. Negotiating Personal Relationships and Social Identities Across Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Giles, Howard, Nikolas Coupland and Justine Coupland. “Accommodation Theory: Communication, Context, and Consequence.” In H. Giles, J. Coupland and N. Coupland (eds.), Contexts of Accommodation: Developments in Applied Sociolinguistics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 1-68.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. London: Penguin Books, [1955] 1980.

Paradis, Carita. Degree Modifiers of Adjectives in Spoken British English. Lund: Lund University Press, 1997.

Paradis, Carita. « Adjectives and Boundedness. » Cognitive Linguistics 12-1 (2001): 47-65.

Payne, John and Rodney Huddleston. “Nouns and Noun Phrases.” In R. Huddleston and G. K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Langage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 323-524.

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman, 1985.

Rotgé, Wilfrid et Jean-Rémi Lapaire. Réussir le commentaire grammatical de textes. Paris : Ellipses, 2004.

Stirling, Lesley and Rodney Huddleston. « Deixis and Anaphora. » In R. Huddleston and G. K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Langage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 1449-1564.

Top of page


1 We highlight the relevant occurrences.

2 We underline the dependents.

3 We underline what is relevant for our analysis of the excerpt.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Élise Mignot, The demonstrative THAT and the elaboration of reference: a case of linguistic accommodationAnglophonia [Online], 25 | 2018, Online since 01 June 2018, connection on 25 January 2022. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Élise Mignot

Sorbonne Université
EA 7332 CeLiSo (Centre de Linguistique en Sorbonne)

By this author

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Anglophonia – French Journal of English Linguistics est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search