Category: "Demonstratives"


by Don  

The Russian word for ‘that,’ as in “that car,” “that dog” or “that house” is тот. Grammatically it is a demonstrative adjective, thus it occurs in forms that vary for case, number, and gender, and of course it agrees with the noun it modifies. It declines like this:

Masc Neut Fem Pl
Nom тот то та те
Acc * ту *
Gen того той тех
Pre том
Dat тому тем
Ins тем теми

Here are some sample sentences:

— Кто живёт в том доме?
— Вампир. Туда не ходи.
“Who lives in that building?”
“A vampire. Don't go there.”
В том году мы жили в Уфе. That year we lived in Ufa.
На той планете никогда не было настоящей атмосферы. There never was a real atmosphere on that planet. or
That planet never had a real atmosphere.

In English the difference between ‘this’ and ‘that’ is essentially distance. Theoretically the same thing is true in Russian, but somehow the distance factor is not quite the same in these languages. Truth to tell, I haven't come up with a proper explanation of the difference, but here are my current hypotheses:


  • If something is close to me, I use ‘this.’
  • If something is close to you, I use ‘that.’
  • If something is far from both of us, I use ‘that.’


  • If something is close to me, I use «этот».
  • If something is close to you, I use «этот».
  • If something is far from both you and me but I can use a gesture (either hands or a glance) to point it out and we can both clearly see it, I use «этот».
  • If something is far from both you and me and it is partially blocked by intervening items, I use «тот».
  • If something is far from both of us and not visible but we have spoken about it before, I use «тот».

In other words, there are quite a few contexts where even этот is best translated as ‘that’ in English. For instance, let's say your Russian friend sees you reading a book and wants to know the name of the book, the question will most likely come out like this:

Как называется эта книга? What's the name of that book?

If you and a Russian friend are standing on the sidewalk looking at a building across the street. If your friend points to the building and inquires who lives there, then it's most likely to come out like this:

Кто живёт в этом доме? Who lives in that building?

If you and your Russian friend are talking about a building in the distance that is partially blocked by other buildings, you will most likely use «тот»:

— Кто живёт в том доме?
— В каком?
— Вон в том с красной крышей, за церковью.»
“Who lives in that building?”
“In which one?”
“There in that one, the one with the red roof behind the church.”

And if you can't see the building but you've discussed it before, «тот» is best:

Кто живёт в том деревянном доме на Садовой улице? Помнишь, мы о нём говорили, там ещё такая злая собака, лает без умолку. Не знаю как соседи бедные спят Who lives in that building on Sadovaya Street? You remember, we talked about it. There's a really mean dog there that never stops barking. I don't know the poor neighbors manage to sleep.

In short, one cannot mechanically say that этот always corresponds to ‘this,’ and тот always corresponds to ‘that.’ You will need practical experience wth Russian life to start getting a feel for the contexts where each is used.

BTW, I'm actively on the lookout for better explanations of the this/that этот/тот distinction. Please feel free to express disagreements, corrections, or other insights in the comments. We are all here to do a better job at cross-cultural communication, so your input will be appreciated.