Thursday, June 9, 2016

The GN Takes a Stroll in the Land of These and Those

Stackexchange.com is a fun Q&A site sheltering 156 different communities, each with its own topic. People post questions germane to the topic, and someone answers. It works a little like the more famous Quora, but the rules differ slightly. I belong to roughly a dozen topic communities, for some of which I enjoy writing, and others I just enjoy reading. Often, when I first sit down at the computer, especially if I'm still waking up, I might spend a little time on Stack Exchange as a warm-up exercise.

I am a once and future teacher of English as a Foreign Language, so a community of English Language Learners interests me. My students always surprised me with their questions, and most questions required some thought to answer because, as native speakers, we speak instinctively without thinking about it. Answering student questions requires some thought about language that native speakers are not accustomed to doing. Here, for example, is a question from the English Language Learners community:
When should we use "one of these days" and "one of those days"?
My reply:

Most of you seem lost if not completely incorrect. The usage is not idiomatic, and, contrary to what some said, there is nothing inherently negative about those.
First, these and those: These two words are plural demonstrative pronouns, and the meaning distinguishing the two has to do with proximity. These is used to refer to things relatively close;those is used to refer to things relatively distant. The context resolves the relativity of the two words. These words serve for both time and space.
Simply put, the use of those days, as opposed to these days (implicit or explicit), refers to a period that isn't now. It can be in either the past or the future.
Mary Hopkin performing on The Liberace Show,
CBS, 1 August 1969. Public domain.
For example, the song "Those Were the Days" (an old song from the 1920s, made a hit again by Mary Hopkin under Paul McCartney's production) refers to a good time in youth:
Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
—Those Were the Days.
As you can see, there is nothing inherently negative in those: it just mean days that are not now, not these days. You can also speak about those days that lie ahead:
Those days will be much brighter.
Burning a witch on the set of The Seventh Seal, 1957.
Director Ingmar Bergman stands on the horizontal ladders.
Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer stands at the top
of the vertical ladder. Public domain.
That, which is the singular form of those, is often paired with day to refer to the dies irae, judgment day or, literally, the day of anger. It comes up in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal in this exchange between the Knight (Max von Sydow) and Death (Bengt Ekerot):
KNIGHT
But one day they will have to stand at that last moment of life and look towards the darkness.
DEATH
When that day comes ...
—The Seventh Seal. (emphasis mine)
It is common in the literature that speaks of the day of reckoning to refer to it simply as that daybecause of fear of the day, rather like in the Harry Potter series Voldemort is more commonly referred to as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
So to the OP's question:
When should we use "one of these days" and "one of those days"?
It is a judgment call, but that judgment should depend upon whether the day that you are talking about belongs more to the period that you are in, or the period that you will be in (or were in), and the sense of proximity is drawn from the context of the conversation.
Examples:
He was starving, had no money at all, so he looked forward to drawing Social Security because when those days arrive he will be able to eat a little something.
[In those days] We used to have plenty of food, but these days the pantry is bare.
My rickety old grandfather is a standup comedian. In those days when he used to tour constantly, we never saw him. But these days he keeps us laughing constantly.
My daddy used to say that one day America will have to face a terrible reckoning. Judging from the progress of the electoral campaigns, those days may be hard upon us.
The people who answer questions in these communities can be territorial, competitive, and condescending. Since I begin by questioning the correctness of the existing answers for this question, I expect I will take a little heat. Even when someone answers a questions so well that their reply cannot be challenged on technical grounds, they will challenge people for not conforming to Stackexchange rules or to the rules of the local community. So I might take some heat.