May 1

Is it 'this' or 'it'?

Grammar quirks

You might know instinctively, but can you explain why?

Another episode in a short series of videos describing some interesting oddities in the language. This one's about the difference between 'this' and 'it'.


Is it 'this' or 'it'?

Recently, I had an email from someone who was a bit stuck and it made me stop and think – in fact I had to do a bit of research.

I’m Jo Gakonga from ELT-Training.com and this is another one of my Grammar Quirks videos called – is it THIS or is it IT?

So, the question was…

I have a handful of students who are getting ready for the Cambridge Vantage Certificate exam. We’ve been doing some exercises in a practice book but I don’t know how to explain to them why the following answers are correct; or, why the other option is incorrect.

What’s the difference between ‘this’ and ‘it’?

So, I challenge you. Stop me for a minute and see if you can explain. I’m sure you know that (9) is ‘this’ and (10) is ‘it’ but why?

I hope that you did stop. It made me think, I have to say, and it was one of those situations where, once you know the answer, it seems blindingly obvious, but it just didn’t jump out at me at first at all… so here we go…

In some contexts, this and it are pretty much interchangeable, especially in a situation where the ‘it’ thing is physically present:

They can both be a subject pronoun: This is lovely. It’s lovely

Or an object pronoun: Do you like this? Do you like it?

But in some places, it and this are very different – when ‘it’ is used as a ‘dummy’ subject for example:

It’s raining – (what is ‘it’?) - we can’t use ‘this’ in these kind of cases.

‘This’ is a demonstrative pronoun – it usually refers to something that’s closer in distance or time than ‘that’ and it’s something we’re indicating more specifically:

This is the house that Jack built - ‘This’ can also be used as a determiner ‘this house’ in a way that ‘it’ can’t…

These things I was aware of. But the case in the email made me think…. I instinctively think that ‘the reason for ---’ is definitely ‘this’ and ‘I would be happy to check ---’ is definitely ‘it’.  But why?

If you are now thinking – just tell us! - it comes down to what is being referred to and the rule, when you know it, is very simple. 

‘This’ refers back to a whole clause or sentence and ‘it’ refers back to a single thing… so let’s look at it again:

I’ve been asked by the organisers if you could write your presentation for the event using PowerPoint. The reason for this….

Here, ‘this’ refers to being asked by the organisers if you could write your presentation for the event using PowerPoint. All of this….

In the second case

If you like, I’d be happy to check it...

'It' here definitely means the PowerPoint presentation – a single thing.

So that’s it – once you know, it’s easy, isn’t it, but it did make me scratch my head at first.

Do you have any pieces of language like this that initially perhaps flummoxed you? Feel free to get in touch – maybe I’ll make a little video about it.

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