“It” and “This”: The Difference Made Easy

"It" and "this" - the difference made easy

Sometimes we get suggestions for the blog from our readers.

Last week, Vladimir asked us to explain the difference between “it” and “this.”

I have to admit that I’d never really thought about this before, and after doing some research I realised two things:

  • Although the difference between “it” and “this” is important, I’ve never seen it in any English course book.
  • The difference between “it” and “this” is really interesting, powerful and quite easy to understand — if you look at it the right way.

1. The confusing “it” and “this” thing

What’s the best way to look at it?

Well, I think of these words as a handbag and a box. Let me explain.

Here’s a handbag:

“it” and “this” - the "it handbag"

It’s a completely normal handbag. We can put lots of different things into the handbag. Because it’s a normal handbag.

“it” and “this” - handbag with things in it

I call it the “it handbag.”

OK. Here’s a box:

“it” and “this” - a box

This box is NOT a normal box.

This box doesn’t contain things. It contains ideas.

“it” and “this” - a box of ideas

I call it the “this box.”

Now, let’s talk about grammar. Look at this sentence:

My car can travel through time.

In this sentence, we have a thing (a car) and an action (travelling through time).

The car is a simple, single thing. So we can put it in the “it handbag.”

My car can travel through time. It is also electric.

As we know from TV, travelling through time is complicated. It’s an idea, so we put it into the “this box.”

My car can travel through time. This will make me famous.

So remember: Single things take “it.” Ideas take “this.”

2. Another thing about “it”

So we’ve seen how we can use “it” to refer to single things.

Another common way we use “it” is the “forward-thinking it.”

What does that mean? I’ll explain in a minute.

But first, let’s look at some examples:

It appears that he’s lost.

It looks like she hasn’t slept.

It’s common to eat breakfast in the morning.

Yes, it’s true that I own seven large gorillas.

Although they look different, all of these use the “forward-thinking it.”

This means that for each sentence, “it” means something later in the sentence:

It appears that he’s lost.

It looks like she hasn’t slept.

It’s common to eat breakfast in the morning.

Yes, it’s true that I own seven large gorillas.

Let’s look at these in more detail:

With verbs:

We can use the “forward-thinking it” with “seems” and “appears”:

It seems that... It appears that...

Notice that after “seems” and “appears that,” we use a full sentence.

We can also use it with the five “sense verbs”:

It looks smells tastes sounds feels like...

With adjectives

We usually use the “forward-thinking it” with adjectives that express an opinion.

Some adjectives are followed by “to”:

It’s common to eat breakfast in the morning.

And other adjectives are followed by “that”:

Yes, it’s true that I own seven large gorillas.

Some adjectives are more flexible and are followed by either “to” or “that”:

It’s nice to meet you.

It’s nice that I met him.

How do you know when to use “to” or “that”?

Unfortunately, there’s no rule. But here’s a Venn diagram with some common examples:

adjective Venn diagram

Are there any English topics you’re having trouble with? Let us know in the comments and we might just write a post about it!

4 thoughts on ““It” and “This”: The Difference Made Easy

    1. Hi Friba.

      That’s a good question, and these words are commonly confused.

      Apart from the grammatical difference (I hope we cover that in the post), there’s a big difference in meaning:

      Look – We use “look” when we’re talking ONLY about the appearance of something/someone.
      Seem – We use “seem” when we’re speaking generally about how something is (it can be character, appearance, sound … anything!).

      Hope that helps!

  1. Wow, It’s really cool that you have made lesson for my request.
    Thank you very much!!! Greate work!
    Is it correct, that “it” we are using only for things and “forward-thinking it”, and “this” only for ideas?

    1. Heh! So glad you’re pleased. Actually, your question really interested us. It seemed like a simple question, but after thinking about it and doing the research, it turns out it was quite a complicated one. So thanks for providing such an interesting idea!

      In answer to your question: Yes, it’s true that we use “it” for things and “forward-thinking it”, and “this only for ideas … MOST OF THE TIME! Remember – English is a living language and people naturally break the rules often. If you stick to these rules you’ll be right about 80% of the time. Sadly, there is no 100% answer!

      Thanks again for your input!

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