Written by Mark L. Levinson
The old preacher’s advice goes, “Tell them what you’re gonna tell them, then tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” As technical writers we do at least the first two. In a tutorial we also do the third. In a user guide, instead of telling them what we just told them to do, we may tell them how to tell whether they did it right.
When you’re telling them what you’re gonna tell them, you’re in particular danger from the multiple This. You can easily write something like “This document explains the TiePlumb gauge. This gauge has a number of uses. All these uses are explained in these pages.”
The word “this,” and its plural “these,” imply proximity to the speaker. When you say that “this document explains the TiePlumb gauge,” the mind’s eye of the reader considers that you the speaker are holding the document or somehow speaking forth from inside it.
Then you say, “This gauge has a number of uses.” The first “this” put you near the document; now, in a kind of cinematic jump-cut, you’re near the gauge.
You go on, “All these uses are explained in these pages.” Now your readers are mentally cross-eyed. Are you to be pictured gesturing at an array of uses or flipping through a stack of pages? The mind’s eye, which you should be cultivating as an ally in bringing understanding to the reader, is overtaxed.
Your muscular rescuer in such situations is the word “that” and its plural “those.” “This” refers to something over here, and there’s a limit to how many things you can be pictured simultaneously holding or indicating close at hand. The ideal limit, in fact, is one.
“That” refers to something out there, and out there is big enough for everything. It’s a nice forceful word too, as Frank Sinatra realized. You may recall he liked to replace “the” with “that” from time to time as he sang the standards, and it’s easy to understand his preference. Why sing “don’t sit under the apple tree” when “don’t sit under that apple tree” is so much more vivid?
Sinatra’s ancestors spoke Italian, which differentiates between “this” and “that.” A lot of our ancestors spoke Yiddish and didn’t differentiate, so to us it comes less naturally.
Besides distinguishing between near and far, “this/these” refers to a subject that is being presented and “that/those” refers to a subject that has already been presented. This column is about demonstrative pronouns. I wrote a previous column, and that one was about opening sentences. This is here and now and coming up, that was there and then.
But you don’t need to wait till you’ve said the last word on a subject before you refer back to it as “that” or “those.” Having said that the gauge has a number of uses, you could continue with “All those uses are explained in these pages,” replacing one “these” with a “those.” (You’ll have to live with the fact that the pages you are sharing with the reader are “these” while they’re being read.)
If you’ve discussed a particular button and a particular function, there’s no problem saying that “that button activates that function.” As long as the nouns distinguish one “that” from the other, there’s no mental collision because the wide world of that/those is so much more spacious than the little neighborhood of this/these.
But if you want something quieter than “that,” another useful substitute is the everyday article “the.” If we’ve established what we’re talking about, “the” is often as good as “this.” Instead of using “this” to start two successive sentences, you could write ““This document explains the TiePlumb gauge. The gauge has a number of uses.”
So what’s the bottom line? “This/these” should be scrupulously used for one thing at a time. “That/those,” which is a bit emphatic, can be used for several things as long as they’re clearly distinct from one another. But don’t forget that the humble “the” can often do the job as well.
Comments and questions are welcome: ]]