spanish-demonstratives

How to Use Spanish Demonstratives to Talk About This, That, These and Those

At some point in your travels to Spain or Latin America, you’re going to be reduced to pointing to explain yourself.

Instead of accompanying that pointing with just wordless blubbering, you can class it up with a bit of language:

  • “Give me one of these, please.”
  • “What is that?”
  • “No, not those. I want those other ones way over there!”

In this post we’ll look at how to say general—and therefore enormously useful—Spanish phrases like the ones above, which make use of demonstratives (they’ve been highlighted in bold).

We’ll also see other uses for demonstratives, both as adjectives and as pronouns.

Demonstratives in English are the words “that,” “this,” “these” and “those.” In Spanish, just as in English, demonstratives are lovely for indicating things when you have no idea what you’re talking about.

We’ll see that the options get just a little bit more complicated in Spanish, but extra options give us great communicative power, from pointing our way through a restaurant order to explaining the melodrama of lost love.

This post assumes that you’re already familiar with the idea of gendered adjectives in Spanish, and for most of the examples you’ll need a basic understanding of commands and the present tense indicative. Some of the later examples make use of past tenses.
 

 

Spanish Demonstratives: For Gabbing About This, That and Those Over There

English speakers see the world of things in two categories of proximity: this man and that man (or the plural forms these men and those men).

Spanish speakers in contrast see three types of distance: este hombre (this man), ese hombre (that man), and aquel hombre (that man over there).

The first two options get more day-to-day use, and often in the same ways that we use this and that in English.

The third option, aquel, is used for emphasizing what the speaker considers the noun in question to be quite far.

These words are adjectives, so as you might expect they change according to gender and for plural, as with other Spanish adjectives. For example, you say:

  • el hombre blanco (the white man)
  • los hombres blancos (the white men)
  • la mujer blanca (the white woman)
  • las mujeres blancas (the white women)

Demonstratives undergo similar changes.

Here are the full declinations of the Spanish demonstrative adjectives for gender and number. 

Distance/number            Masculine                 Feminine

this                                    este                           esta

these                                estos                          estas

that                                   ese                             esa

those                                esos                           esas

that (over there)              aquel                          aquella

those (over there)           aquellos                     aquellas

To get a feeling for when and how to use these, let’s look at some examples.

It’s important to pay attention to the situations in which they’re used, as we want to acquire a sense of when something is considered close and when it is considered far in Spanish.

Below, you’ll see a list of situations, and the proper demonstratives to use for each.

  • I’m standing at a fruit stand and holding apples in my hands.

¿Cuánto cuestan estas manzanas? — How much do these apples cost?

  • I’m standing at the same fruit stand, but the apples are on top of a pile and out of my reach.

¿Cuánto cuestan esas manzanas? — How much do those apples cost?

  • I’m standing at the fruit stand and I see a stall at the other end of the market. I ask a knowledgeable friend about their apples, while simultaneously implying that I might feel a bit lazy about the idea of going all the way over there.

¿Cuánto cuestan aquellas manzanas? — How much do those apples over there cost?

  • I’m at my laptop and a friend is sitting nearby, and I point at my laptop and excitedly exclaim.

¡Este artículo es fantástico! — This article is fantastic!

  • I’m talking to my friend the next day.

¿Has leído ese artículo que te envié? — Have you read that article that I sent you?

  • I’m talking to my friend a month later.

¿Te acuerdas de aquel artículo sobre los demonstrativos? — Do you remember that one article about demonstratives?

  • You’re done with a conversation about the past, and you want to end the discussion.

En aquel tiempo era diferente. — Back then things were different.

As you can see from above, this idea of distance is inexact. It depends more on the feeling that the speaker wishes to communicate than it does on any specific, measurable distance. As in English, it also takes on a figurative sense when you’re talking about concepts or the proximity of nebulous things in time or space.

Spanish demonstrative pronouns

In English, we don’t just use this/that/those/these as adjectives followed by a noun (this apple). We also use them without any noun at all:

  • “How much is this?”
  • Those are expensive.”

These two examples above are considered pronouns, meaning that they replace nouns, like the way this/these would replace apple/apples.

In Spanish, the masculine and feminine demonstrative pronouns are the same as the adjectives that we’ve already seen, but there’s a new column to be added, for neuter demonstrative pronouns.

These are great for when you have no idea what the gender of the thing you’re referring to is.

Distance/number       Masculine                   Feminine               Neuter

this                                 este                              esta                      esto

these                              estos                            estas

that                                 ese                               esa                       eso

those                              esos                             esas

that (over there)            aquel                            aquella                aquello

those (over there)         aquellos                       aquellas

Technical note: Some grammar books and less classy corners of the Internet still claim that there should be written accent marks in the masculine and feminine pronouns (éste, ésta, éstos, éstas, etc.), but the RAE (Real Academia Española, the official guardian of the Spanish language) has long retired this superfluous headache.

If a teacher tries to complicate your life by telling you otherwise, send them that link above (it’s in Spanish).

The RAE does still allow for this spelling change in certain rare cases. Gluttons for punishment can discover this in the next section of this post (it’s really not necessary for most learners, and most native speakers ignore it).

Let’s look at some common examples of the pronouns in action, like if we were in a big open market full of mysterious foods that we’ve never seen before, say the famous Boquería in Barcelona.

For the first example, note that in this region one typically uses the informal address with vendors, even those one hasn’t met before. In some countries, you’ll want to be more formal.

  • Dame uno de estos, por favor. — “Give me one of these please.”
  • ¿Qué es eso? — “What is that?”
  • No, esos no. Quiero aquellos ahí. — “No, not those. I want the other ones way over there!”

When you need to use an adjective with a neuter pronoun, the adjective will be masculine.

  • Eso es bueno. — “That is good.”

As with the adjective forms, the demonstrative pronouns can be used to talk about immaterial things. Take a look at the following situations:

  • You’re hearing a song, an idea or about an invention.

Eso me suena. — That sounds familiar to me.

  • You’re in the middle of a crazy situation. A lot is happening all around you.

Esto es una locura.  — This is craziness.

  • You’re admiring an indiscernible thing at a distance.

Aquello es bonito. — That thing over there is pretty.

There are also some very common expressions that make use of these pronouns.

  • ¡Eso! — That’s it! (Someone’s given you the right answer.)
  • ¿Como va eso, estás avanzando? — How is that going? Are you making progress? (At work)
  • por eso — that’s why
  • a eso de las 15:00 — at about 3 p.m.
  • aparte de eso — besides that
  • ¿Y eso qué? — So what?
  • ¿De dónde sacaste eso? — Where did you get that (e.g. weird idea) from?
  • dicho esto — that (being) said
  • con esto en mente — with this in mind
  • Esto sí es la vida. — This really is the life.
  • todo esto y más — all this and more
  • por aquello — that’s why
  • aquello se está animando — things are getting lively

Spelling changes in Spanish demonstrative pronouns

This section is provided for completeness and for Spanish language nerds; beginning and intermediate learners should feel free to skip it.

As mentioned previously, written accent marks on Spanish pronouns are no longer considered necessary by the RAE and most grammarians, editors and publications.

The only exception to this is when there could possibly be a confusion between pronouns and adjectives. In that case, you would write the masculine and feminine demonstratives as follows (note that pronunciation is always unchanged, and the neuter forms aren’t affected).

Distance/number       Masculine              Feminine

this                                 éste                         ésta

these                             éstos                        éstas

that                                ése                           ésa

those                             ésos                         ésas

that (over there)           aquél                       aquélla

those (over there)        aquéllos                 aquéllas

The RAE gives the following example as a case in which you could employ a written accent to provide clarity about whether you intend to use the pronoun or the adjective.

  • ¿Por qué compraron aquéllos libros usados? — Why did those people over there buy used books? (i.e., aquéllos is a pronoun and the subject of the sentence.)

Contrast that to the sentence’s meaning without the written accent, which indicates the adjective form is intended:

  • ¿Por qué compraron aquellos libros usados? — Why did they buy those used books over there?

Since the RAE says not to use written accents with demonstratives except in cases like this, a reader coming across a demonstrative lacking an accent might theoretically wonder whether the lack of an accent was intentional to indicate the adjective sense, or part of the general tendency to no longer use accents with the word aquellos.

Also note that the first example above is a bit of a tortured leap and sounds odd; it’s clearly hard to come up with examples where this written accent is useful. If you have any doubt about clarity, a better option in my opinion is to just rewrite the sentence in some other way.

  • ¿Por qué aquella gente compró libros usados? — Why did those people over there buy used books?

You’ll still see the demonstrative pronouns with written accent marks used throughout some publications, like El País.

Examples of Spanish demonstratives in Afro-Peruvian music

The Spanish language’s third, extra-far level in demonstratives gives the language an expressive power that we can’t match in English, and a good way to see this in action is through Afro-Peruvian music.

Long marginalized in Peru, this grand musical tradition is now one of South America’s great cultural assets. This has nothing to do with Andean panpipe music you may have heard; Afro-Peruvian music is marked by soaring melodramatic vocals and thumping cajón (a wooden box drum that is sat on and pounded at with open palms).

The songs are great for Spanish learners because the lyrics are relatively straightforward and the vocalist generally sings clearly and at the front of the mix.

Let’s take a look at the first few lines of “Yo perdí el corazón” as interpreted by the great Manuel Donayre.

First, try to listen to the first few lines without reading the lyrics below the video. What do you think the choice of demonstrative adjective says about the singer’s relationship to the romantic moments of the past?

Yo perdí el corazón
una tarde lejana
una tarde de aquellas
cuando el amor nos llama

I lost my heart
on a faraway afternoon
one afternoon of those
when love calls us

Are you feeling the power of Spanish demonstratives?

Aquellas is our farthest-removed demonstrative pronoun, so we get the sense that the singer feels that these afternoons of loving are firmly in his past. If he had chosen esas instead, we might be led to believe that he could still experience some moments when love calls, but with aquellas it doesn’t seem so likely to ever happen again, in spite of the use of the present tense.

Here are the full lyrics; do listen to the rest of the song! His delivery of “el culpable soy yo por tener corazón” (the guilty one is me for having a heart) is a stroke of pure melodramatic brilliance.

So as not to wallow in just one man’s despair (and also to stay focused on demonstratives), we’ll skip over now to “Alma, corazón y vida” (“Soul, Heart, and Life”) as interpreted by Eva Ayllón, the queen of Afro-Peruvian music.

Check out just the opening lines first, and see what similarities you can spot in her attitude.

You’ll notice that in the two opening lines we’re already on a familiar theme of Afro-Peruvian music:

Recuerdo aquella vez que yo te conocí
recuerdo aquella tarde

I remember that time that I met you
I remember that afternoon

The two uses of the demonstrative adjective aquella is already setting us up for the tragedy to come later in the song. Whenever she met the object of her affections, it’s not a moment that she considers comfortably close—it’s somewhere in the (painfully!) distant past.

After explaining that she fell in love, she goes on to use more demonstrative adjectives (the following is the same video synced to 0:43). Again, try to listen to a few lines before you look at the lyrics. Which ones does she use and why?

Oye esta canción que lleva
alma, corazón y vida
esas tres cositas nada mas te doy
porque no tengo fortuna

Hear this song that carries
soul, heart, and life
those three little things, and nothing more, I give you
because I don’t have a fortune

The first demonstrative esta tells us simply that the singer is referring to the present song being sung, not some other song.

For the second demonstrative the singer chooses esas because the things (soul, heart and life) are being handed over, so they’re no longer in her possession, but aren’t at some great distance either.

This song is thus about a love that started in the distant past but is enduring into the present, even if it’s completely unrequited by that jerk who’s the object of her affection.

If you’re looking for more Afro-Peruvian music to study or sob to, David Byrne put together a fantastic compilation.

 

That’s it for our complete roundup of Spanish demonstratives.

If you live in an area with Spanish speakers, head out to your local fruit market and try using the adjectives to buy fruit you know (esta manzana — this apple) and the pronouns to buy things you don’t know (quiero eso — I want that).

If you don’t, try doing a similar role-play with a teacher or language exchange partner.

Before long, you’ll be waxing on about your long-lost childhood (aquel tiempo — that period), and maybe launching into your own melodramatic love songs.


Mose Hayward blogs about Latin American music and other mysteries of language, food, and drinking.

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