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The Emphatic 'This'

When is it OK to say, "I listen to this podcast..." instead of "I listen to a podcast..."?

By
Samantha Enslen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
A hand pointing at a computer for emphasis: this!

Recently, one of our listeners wrote in with a question about the word “this”:

“I have a question regarding the use of the word ‘this’ in regard to something that is not present. My husband gets irritated every time I say something like, ‘So I was listening to this podcast...’ He tells me that there is no podcast in the room, so I can't use that word. I explain to him that I can use it because I am referring to a specific podcast. Could you please clarify (hopefully in my favor!) the use of ‘this’?

Although we hesitate to jump into the middle of a spousal disagreement, we’ll diplomatically try to answer the question.

The Emphatic 'This' Means Replacing 'A' with 'This' to Add Emphasis

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First of all, the usage our listener is talking about is known as the “emphatic this.” It happens when you replace the indefinite article “a” with “this” to add emphasis. 

For example, instead of saying “Let me tell you about a book I’m reading,” you might say, “Let me tell you about this book I’m reading.” Instead of “A coworker is making me so mad,” you’d say, “This coworker is making me so mad.”

Replacing the word “a” with “this” creates a subtle but noticeable difference in the sentence. Is the usage somewhat colloquial? Yes. Is it appropriate in formal writing? Probably not. Is it acceptable just about anytime else? I’m going to go with yes.

Is the Emphatic 'This' Correct?

Here’s what “Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage” says about this topic: 

“It is not rare in speech for ‘this’ to be used for emphasis in place of the indefinite article, as in ‘This guy said to me....’ Use of the emphatic ‘this’ in writing has sometimes been discouraged, but our evidence shows that it is neither rare nor inappropriate in writing of a conversational tone.” 

“Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage” concurs. It notes that “this” is used in narrative writing or speech “to refer in a familiar manner to a person, place, [or] object not previously mentioned.” Fowler’s notes that this usage seems to have emerged in American English in the 1920s

The editor of “Fowler’s” can be quite firm when he thinks a certain usage is incorrect. He says that other errors, for example, “should not be allowed to stand.” But he doesn’t take a stand one way or the other when discussing the emphatic “this.” He simply notes that it exists. 

So it seems safe to assume that he finds it acceptable.

The Emphatic 'This' Has Been Used for a Long Time

Finally, we’ll note that like many other grammatical phenomena that seem to be new—and are said to signal the destruction of our language—this usage is actually old and established. 

In fact, we found an example from 1533, in a history of Rome. The author, Livy, writes of “Numa, this civil and illustrious prince.” A book about martyrs from just a few years later, in 1583, refers to someone being “raised and upholden by this new religion.”

So the emphatic “this” is not new. It’s been used by writers for centuries.

That’s your tip for today. Feel free to replace “a” with “this” in casual conversation and in less formal writing. Skip it if you’re writing or speaking in a formal setting. And if you want to learn more, check out this language section I write at QuickandDirtyTips.com.

Sources

Butterfield, Jeremy, ed. “Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.” This. Oxford University Press, 2015. 

Livy. Livy: The Early History of Rome. Penguin, 2002.

Merriam Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.” This. Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2002.

“this” Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. (subscription required, accessed June 11, 2019).

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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