How to distinguish between this and that in French

In our introduction to saying this and that in French, we mentioned that usually French does not make a distinction between the 'near' and 'far' meanings of this versus that as in English.

When it is absolutely necessary to make a distinction, there are generally two mechanisms:

  • In everyday speech, speakers add là-bas to mean that ... where the meaning isn't otherwise clear: ce garçon là-bas = that boy (over there);
  • in formal speech and writing, two suffixes can be added to the end of the noun to distinguish between this and that. The suffixes are -ci ("this") and -là ("that").

Most of the examples on this page refer specifically to the distinction between this and that, using ce in French. However, the points made apply equally to the distinction in the plural between these and those (ces in French).

Everyday speech

In everyday speech, there is usually little need to distinguish between this and that. Where a distinction is made, it is generally when the speaker is physically in front of or pointing to something. Then, a distinction is often made by adding ("here/there") or là-bas ("over there"):

ce livre rouge là
this red book (that I'm pointing to)
ce livre rouge là-bas
that red book (over there)
ces livres rouges là
these red books (that I'm pointing to)
ces livres rouges là-bas
those red books (over there)
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In reality, ce ... là doesn't uniquely mean this ...: it can be used to point to something immediately in front of the speaker or in the 'medium distance' (where English would tend to use that)1.

this vs that, these vs those in formal speech and writing

In formal speech and writing, a further mechanism exists for distinguishing between this and that. The suffixes -ci and -là can be added to the end of the noun phrase:

ce livre-ci
this book
ce livre-là
that book
ce livre rouge-ci
this red book
ce livre rouge-là
that red book
ces 3% de croissance-ci2
this 3% growth
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As the last example shows, these suffixes can be used with nouns denoting abstract concepts rather than physical objects. It is important to note that the -ci/-là distinction applies essentially to formal usage:

  • The suffix -ci is not used much in everyday speech;
  • In everyday speech, -là does not uniquely mean that— as mentioned above, it in fact tends to have a meaning closer to this.

1. Price, G. (1971), French Language: Present and Past attributes this merging to the increasing tendency of to supplant ici in everyday French speech with the meaning of here.
2. This example taken from Rowlett, P. (2007), The Syntax of French, p. 68

 French grammar index
 French-English dictionary
 English-French dictionary

This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.