Ah, those demonstrative adjectives. They’re just trouble makers!
This is a little pet peeve of mine. Oops, did you catch it? I used the word ‘this’ to point to something, but I didn’t tell you what exactly I happened to be pointing to. Well, maybe I want to be mysterious; you know, lure you in a little before revealing what this pet peeve of mine actually is. Um … not really.
Here’s the answer: I like to see demonstrative adjectives followed by nouns. So, my sentence might have begun, “This common occurrence is a ….” Not doing so isn’t technically wrong, but it can make the reader confused about what, exactly, you’re referring to. I know I’m being picky, but I’ve read so many essays, articles, etc that let a demonstrative adjective stand all by its lonesome. But, before we can talk about why I’m peeved, let’s talk about what a demonstrative adjective actually is.
A demonstrative adjective – this, that, or the plural these, those – functions to point out which person, object or idea the author is referencing. These indispensable words also tell us if that thing we’re talking about is near or far, eg. This desk is wobbly, while that one is not. Easy, right? Well, here’s the problem.
Let’s say, in one paragraph, you’ve written an account of an experience you had recently, and in the next paragraph, you write about your assessment of the situation.
I was about to drive away from the store when something caught my eye. A man dressed in blue overalls was bending over a cardboard box and pulling out an assortment of coloured wigs. I got out of the car and asked him what he was doing. “Kiss me Kate”, he said, quoting Shakespeare. Then, he walked off, leaving the wigs strewn about the sidewalk.
This convinced me that I should probably just get into my car and go home. …
Here’s the question: what does ‘this’ refer to? Is it the situation as a whole? Is ‘this’ referring to the character’s comment, or perhaps the fact that he walked off? See? We don’t really know what the author was intending, and knowing that bit of information is super important when you’re reading something more complex than my attempt above. Wouldn’t this story read much more clearly if that sentence began something like this: This man’s actions … or Those words …?
When writing anything, don’t be afraid to over-clarify. Try to put yourself into the reader’s shoes, and ask yourself if any question of understanding might rise in his or her mind when reading that passage. Less work (figuring out what you mean) on the reader’s part results in a happy reader.