Table of Contents
- The Basics
- Beyond the Basics
これ, それ, あれ, and どれ are a set of こそあど words. You can use them to refer to things you want to talk about, without specifying what they are. In general, これ is used for things that are close to the speaker, それ is used for things that are close to the listener, and あれ is used for things that are close to neither of them. どれ is the question word that accompanies them, and asks "Which one?" out of a choice of three or more objects.
There are nine basic sets of words in Japanese that begin with こ, そ, あ, and ど. They have different meanings and functions depending on the endings that come after こそあど.
However, all these sets share the same concept ー the first syllable of each word in the set indicates the relative distance between you and whatever it is you're referring to. The relative distance from your listener to the thing you're referring to can also come into play.
Here is how こそあど words work when referring to a physical object that you can see:
こ-Words: Words that begin with こ are used for things that are either relatively close to the speaker, or closer to the speaker than to the listener.
そ-Words: Words that begin with そ are used for things that are further from the speaker and/or are closer to the listener.
あ-Words: Words that begin with あ are used for things that are far from the speaker, and also the listener if there is one.
ど-Words: Words that begin with ど are used to ask a question.
If you'd like to read about scenarios that illustrate these concepts and learn more about how they work, check out our こそあど hub page!
Patterns of Use
これ, それ, あれ, and どれ are pronouns that can be used in sentences in the same way as nouns. This means that they can be the subject, object, or indirect object. In the example below, the pronoun これ is the subject of the sentence.
- What is this?
Unlike nouns, however, these words aren't normally paired with the particle の to describe another noun. For this, you'll use another set of こそあど words, この, その, あの, and どの.
- ❌ これの山
- This mountain
- ⭕ この山
- This mountain
The plural versions of これ, それ, and あれ are これら, それら, and あれら, and they do take the particle の.
- ⭕ これらの山
- These mountains
これ, それ, and あれ for Physical Objects
これ, それ, and あれ are used to refer to specific objects that are physically present. They are the equivalent of "this one," "that one," and "that one over there" in English.
For example, imagine you and your friend are at a donut shop. You get a strawberry donut and your friend gets a matcha donut. You bite into your donut and say:
- This one is good.
Here, you use これ because you are talking about the donut that is close to you, the speaker. Your friend's matcha donut also looks delicious and you say:
- That one looks good too.
This time, you use それ because that's closer to your friend, the listener. Your friend says the matcha donut is alright and then whispers while gazing at somewhere else:
- That one over there looks really good.
You follow your friend's gaze to someone who's enjoying a giant chocolate donut. In this example, あれ is used because it's referring to a donut that is far from both of you. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, huh?
どれ for "Which One?" Out of Three or More Choices
The corresponding question word is どれ, and it's used to ask "Which one?" or "Which ones?" However, どれ can only be used when asking about a choice of three or more people or things. When you only have a choice of two options, you'll use どっち (or its polite version どちら) instead.
So, imagine you are at a bakery and wondering which cake to get from a wide selection. You may say:
- I wonder which one to get.
Here, you use どれ because there are multiple choices. You narrow it down, but then you can't decide between two options for the best cake:
- Oh, which one should I pick for the last one?
In this example, you use どっち instead of どれ because the options have been narrowed down to two.
これ, それ, あれ for Multiple Objects
In Japanese, words don't usually change depending on whether you are talking about a single thing or multiple things. For example, "banana" becomes "bananas" in English when there are more than one, but it's always バナナ in Japanese.
In the same way, "this" becomes "these" and "that" becomes "those" for multiple objects in English. But in Japanese, you generally still use これ, それ, and あれ to refer to multiple things.
Now let's say you are at a farmer's market and want to find out the price of the bananas there. Whether you ask for the price of a single banana or a bunch of bananas, the way to say it in Japanese doesn't change:
- How much is that banana?
How much are those bananas?
There are the plural versions of これ, それ, and あれ, which are これら, それら, and あれら. 1 However, these words carry an explanatory tone and are generally used in more formal speaking or writing, as in:
- I'm allergic to soybeans, bananas, and peanuts, so I can't eat anything that contains them.
これ, それ, あれ for Points in Time
In this case, これ generally refers to the present moment. So これから usually means "now," as in "after this moment" or "from now on."
- I'm going to school now.
- Let's work together from now on!
And これまで usually means "until now" or "up until now."
- My efforts up until now came to nothing.
それ can be used for a point in time in the past or the future.
In the past:
- I ate fries at Burger King, and then went to McDonald's.
In the future:
- I'll just play a game or something until then.
それ can also be combined with the particle で to form the conjunction それで meaning "and then" or "so."
- And then, what happened?
あれ is used to talk about the points in time that both the speaker and the listener know very well. So it's generally used for the past.
- What did you do afterward?
Beyond the Basics
これ, それ, and あれ for Information Given Previously
これ, それ, and あれ can refer to the information that has been previously provided.
In this case, これ implies that the information feels close to the speaker or the writer in some way. Maybe it feels close because they consider themselves more familiar with it than other people, or maybe because they are remembering an experience very vividly. Whatever the reason is, これ generally carries a somewhat emphatic tone because you add your personal perspective to the thing you are referring to.
For example, imagine you are talking to a friend about a cake your girlfriend made for you.
- My girlfriend made a cake for me and it was really delicious!
Here, you first say that your girlfriend made a cake for you, and then refer to the cake using これ to say that it was really delicious. By using これ, you can show a vivid description of the delicious cake as if it were right there and you were tasting it now.
On the other hand, それ indicates that you keep a little distance from the information. In other words, by using それ, you can show you are plainly referring to the aforementioned information from an objective point of view. Thus, それ is the most neutral reference word out of the three, and it's often used when you explain something dispassionately.
Now, let's continue on with the same situation. You are still talking to your friend about the cake your girlfriend made, and you say:
- で、それは美味しかったんだけど、その時一緒に 淹れてくれたコーヒーがさ…。
- So it was delicious, but the coffee that she made with it was…
In this example, you use それ to refer to the cake your girlfriend made. Here, それ suits the situation better than これ because this part is just a piece of introductory information leading to another topic, which is the coffee she made for you. You are simply referring to the cake without adding any subjective nuances to it.
Lastly, あれ demonstrates that you are referring to something that's no longer fresh in your mind, and are recalling from somewhere further in your memory. So あれ is often used when the topic triggers the good old days, but it's also used when talking about a shared memory that both the speaker and the listener can call to mind.
In the same scenario, after you complained about the coffee your girlfriend made, your friend changes the topic to another coffee you two had at a cafe together.
- Speaking of coffee, the one at the cafe we went to the other day, that was so good, wasn't it?
Here, your friend uses あれ to refer to a coffee you two had at the cafe together. It hints that you both have the same, or a similar memory of, the experience.
あれ for Implying Something You are Talking About
You've learned あれ is used for information that both you and your listener know about. Linked to this, it can also be used to vaguely refer to something that the speaker is hesitant to say and leaves it up to the interpretation of the person they're talking to. In this usage, あれ is written in either hiragana or katakana.
Let's take a look at one example. Imagine you work with someone who often makes careless mistakes. When your coworker makes another error, another coworker whispers at you:
- Ms.Suzuki is a bit…, you know…?
Wow, how mean! Just like in this example, あれ can usually imply a negative nuance and is often used when talking behind someone's back.
あれ for Exclamation
Since あれ implies you are recollecting some memory, it can also be used when something clicks in your mind and you say "Oh!", "Wait!", or "Huh?"
For example, if you are cleaning your room and suddenly realize you forgot where you placed your phone, you may say:
- Wait, where did I put my phone?
You may wonder if you can say どれら to ask a question, but どれら is not a word. ↩