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Should I use 'that' or 'this'?

1333 Views 22 Replies 13 Participants Last post by  LauraB
I am unsure whether I should use 'that' or 'this' as the first word of the third sentence.  Does it even matter?  Is one correct and the other wrong, or could this be an example where either is okay depending upon what region of the English speaking world you come from?


The day had been long and hard, so he fell asleep as soon as he lay down.  He would have welcomed a long, deep sleep, but that was not to be.  THIS was the night the dream began haunting him.

The day had been long and hard, so he fell asleep as soon as he lay down.  He would have welcomed a long, deep sleep, but that was not to be.  THAT was the night the dream began haunting him.
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I'm wondering how this section is presented to the reader.  Is this something the character is thinking about in his past?  Or is it what is currently happening?

The tense used in the text makes it seem like a past event, and if that's the case, it should be 'that'.
I'm wondering how this section is presented to the reader. Is this something the character is thinking about in his past? Or is it what is currently happening?

The tense used in the text makes it seem like a past event, and if that's the case, it should be 'that'.
Agreed. 'That' to me always implies that there is some distance involved.
swolf,

It actually is the recent past, so I think I agree with you, Fredster, and Kathelm.  The thing that bothers me is that it 'feels' to me as though knowing the previous two lines should be sufficient to make the decision.  The three lines make up the entire paragraph.

When read along with the preceding paragraphs, the paragraph seems okay in its entirety, so it just doesn't feel right that it's not completely obvious which word to use when looking at the paragraph all by itself.  
I think this might sound better

The day had been long and hard, falling asleep as soon as he lay down. He would have welcomed a long, deep sleep, but it was not to be. This was the night the dream began haunting him.

Too many thats spoil the flow. I've taken a cheek and cut down your over use of the word he too
Greenpen,

Using 'that' twice is something that bothers me a little bit, too.  It really is amazing how a person can write thousands of words without a huge amount of difficulty and then some simple three-line paragraph can hold things up for hours.
DanM said:
Greenpen,

Using 'that' twice is something that bothers me a little bit, too. It really is amazing how a person can write thousands of words without a huge amount of difficulty and then some simple three-line paragraph can hold things up for hours.
It seems to be the way of things. I often wrestle all day with the same problem, even with 600,000 words to play with. I read, or have read out, my prose now, until it sounds like good poetry.
Greenpen,

In my last post I should have noted that the actual paragraph has one less 'he' than I show above.  The actual paragraph has the character's first name in place of the first 'he'.  I have been trying not to over-promote here, so I made the paragraph as generic as possible.
DanM said:
Greenpen,

In my last post I should have noted that the actual paragraph has one less 'he' than I show above. The actual paragraph has the character's first name in place of the first 'he'. I have been trying not to over-promote here, so I made the paragraph as generic as possible.
I see. No problem. I wouldn't want come across as pedantic. I have a list in my head of words that click when they appear too often in a paragraph. It's the same with wrong spelling, I'm, perhaps, far too right brained.
"this is not a general rule" - so don't take it as one.

In your particular circumstance I would treat 'that' as past tense, and 'this' as present tense.
"This" implies more immediacy and an unknown quality about what will happen. We are more present as witnesses. I'd use "this" if I was continuing on with the story of the dream.

"That" implies all is known and the narrator will now reveal. We are waiting for the narrative to continue. I'd use "that" if I was switching to another scene and would come back to the dream.

Neither is right or wrong. I think it all depends on how the rest of the book is written.
I vote for "this", Dan. "That" appears twice in a very short span. More importantly, though, "this" has a more urgent ring to it, bringing the reader closer to the action, which is what you want. "That" puts more of a distance between the reader and the story.
Personally, I'd use 'that'. The other one could be replaced easily enough.
DanM said:
The day had been long and hard, so he fell asleep as soon as he lay down. He would have welcomed a long, deep sleep, but that was not to be. THAT was the night the dream began haunting him.
How about:

The day had been long and hard, so he fell asleep as soon as he lay down. He would have welcomed a long, deep sleep, but it was not to be. Instead, the dream came.
I haven't had much coffee, but should it be lied and not lay?
Lynn ODell said:
How about:

The day had been long and hard, so he fell asleep as soon as he lay down. He would have welcomed a long, deep sleep, but it was not to be. Instead, the dream came.
I vote for Red's version :)
"Lay"is the past tense of lie, when used to mean recline.
Mike Dennis said:
"Lay"is the past tense of lie, when used to mean recline.
Yes, it is.
Thanks for all the suggestions. Putting it all together as best I can, I am concluding that I can use either word without encountering any violent complaints from readers. So, I will just pick the one that flows the best when I read the whole chapter. I'll try to post an update when I make the decision.

How about:

The day had been long and hard, so he fell asleep as soon as he lay down. He would have welcomed a long, deep sleep, but it was not to be. Instead, the dream came.
This would work if I was about to tell the reader what the dream was, but that doesn't happen for a while. At this point in the novel, the reader is just supposed to know that a dream has begun haunting the character's sleep.
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