[Vocabulary] It / This / That

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nyggus

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Hi,

I've always had problems with choosing among "it", "this" and "that" to refer to things that have been mentioned earlier. In many situations such sentences are unclear for me—maybe because I'm a non-native English speaker, so I don't feel English as natives do. Thus I try to avoid such constructions, if it's possible (it usually is). I'm not alone, however: many books on writing suggest avoiding such constructions.

However, when reading Michael Swan's "Practical English Usage", I was amazed—and happy—to find the following advice:

"When more than one thing has been mentioned, it generally refers to the main subject of discussion; this and that generally select the last thing mentioned. Compare:​
We keep the ice-cream machine in the spare room. It is mainly used by the children, incidentally. (The machine is used by the children.)
We keep the ice-cream machine in the spare room. This/That is mainly used by the children, incidentally. (The spare room is used by the children.)"​

I must confess it was the very first time that I saw such advice. Now my question is: Does it work that way indeed? Can I use this advice and not risk that people will misunderstand my sentences?

Thanks,
nyggus
 

teechar

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I don't agree with that.

Consider:

I keep the money I save under my mattress. It is the best place to hide things.
Clearly "it" refers to the mattress, not to the money.

I keep the chamber pot under my bed. That/This is what I use when I get up in the middle of the night for a pee!
Clearly "that" refers to the chamber pot, not to the bed.

I think the context of a well-written text should clarify what the reference is to.
 

nyggus

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Thanks teechar. What you wrote makes sense, so I will continue paying attention to having clear antecedents for all my pronouns.

I admit the advice did not seem convincing to me (otherwise I wouldn't have started the thread) for a simple reason that it seemed isolated—as I mentioned, I'm not aware of any other source that would give this advice. What's strange is that Swan's book is considered a good resource for English usage (at least that's what I've heard quite a few times).
 
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