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People all over the world say ‘this’ or ‘that’ depending on whether an object is within reach or further away, study finds


  • The experiment found that the word ‘this’ was used when the object was close 

Whether you say ‘this’ or ‘that’ may seem to be neither here nor there.

But, helpfully for someone helping their partner with a recipe or DIY, if they ask you to pass them ‘that screw’ or ‘that sharp knife’, they probably mean one they can’t reach.

If they ask for ‘this’ object, they are referring to a tool or utensil close enough that they could get it themselves.

The rule that ‘this’ generally means something close, and ‘that’ means something far away, appears to apply no matter where you are in the world, based on a new study of 874 people who spoke 29 different languages.

Researchers asked people to describe various shapes placed on a table using sentences like ‘this red circle’ or ‘that green star’.

The experiment found that the word 'this', or its equivalent in another language, was used 74% of the time when the shape was in touching distance (Stock photo)

The experiment found that the word ‘this’, or its equivalent in another language, was used 74% of the time when the shape was in touching distance (Stock photo)

Pictured, Professor Kenny Coventry who led the University of East Anglia study

Pictured, Professor Kenny Coventry who led the University of East Anglia study

The experiment found that the word ‘this’, or its equivalent in another language, was used 74% of the time when the shape was in touching distance. 

But it was used only 8% of the time when the object was out of reach. 

Professor Kenny Coventry, who led the University of East Anglia study, said: ‘The words this and that may seem basic, but are hugely important.

‘They were probably among the first words created by ancient humans, who needed to inform others about this or that predator, or food source.

‘It is useful in everyday life, when working with someone else to cook a meal or do some DIY, to know that when they ask for ‘that’ knife, they probably mean one they can’t reach.’

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, involved 45 international academics, studying English, Spanish, Italian, Norwegian, Japanese and Mandarin.



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