The Grammarphobia Blog

This, that, and the other

Q: What do you think about using “that” or “which” or “this” to refer to a general concept in a previous sentence or clause if there doesn’t seem to be any ambiguity? For example: “She learned to drive in England, which made it confusing when she came to the United States.”

A: I have no problem with this usage, and neither does Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. To summarize: “The use of pronominal this (and that, which, and it as well) to refer broadly to a preceding idea, topic, sentence, or paragraph … is considered quite respectable” (p. 903).

In fact, this usage is not only quite respectable now, but it has been since Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has published references going back to around the year 893 for the pronoun “this” used in reference “to a fact, act, or occurrence, or a statement or question, mentioned or implied in the preceding context.”

You’d probably find it hard to read the Old English citations in the dictionary’s entry for “this” used as a demonstrative pronoun (a pronoun that points out something).

But here’s one from Lindley Murray’s influential English Grammar (1825): “Bodies which have no taste, and no power affecting the skin, may, notwithstanding this, act upon organs which are more delicate.”

As for “that,” the OED has published references for the usage from around 855. Here’s one from Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act III, scene 1) that I’m sure you’re familiar with: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”

Finally, we come to the use of “which” to refer to a previous circumstance or situation. Although this usage isn’t quite as firmly established as the other two, the OED has citations going back to 1390, with examples from Shakespeare, Dickens, and Henry James.

Here’s a citation in Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “The two Miss Crumptons proceeded to the Adelphi at the appointed time next day, dressed, of course, in their best style, and looking as amiable as they possibly could – which, by-the-bye, is not saying much for them.”

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