Nonreferential this

This month's CACM contains articles by Jeffrey Ullman and Dave Patterson on how to advise PhD students. I particularly enjoyed the following aside from Ullman on a key writing skill:
While it sounds pedantic at first, you get a huge increase in clarity by chasing the "nonreferential this" from students' writing. Many students (and others) use "this" to refer to a whole concept rather than a noun. For example: "If you turn the sproggle left, it will jam, and the glorp will not be able to move. This is why we foo the bar." Now the writer of this prose fully understands about sproggles and glorps, so they know whether we foo the bar because glorps do not move, or because the sproggle jammed. It is important for students to put themselves in the place of their readers, who may be a little shaky on how sproggles and glorps work, and need a more carefully written paragraph. Today, it is not that hard to find a "this" that is nonreferential. Almost all begin sentences, so grepping for 'This' will find them.

This is good to hear from others. This is because it's true. This is all I have to say.
Hooray! I'm delighted to know the name "nonreferential 'this'". I was lucky enough to have mine pointed out a long time ago. The process of eliminating my nonreferential "this"s is sometimes challenging, and always gratifying.

Thanks for the pointer, Phil!
In the example, it seems like the first sentence is a reason for fooing the bar. As such, the occurrence of "this" refers to that reason. And, being a reason, it is a thing, just what any noun denotes.

Granted, it's not very precise--we don't learn the connection between that reason and the activity of fooing the bar--but I don't see why the occurrence of "this" is not referential.
Sorry, Ezra, that's not right. The word 'this' refers to the closest preceding noun phrase, so here 'this' means 'the glorp', which I doubt is what the writer intended!
This:-) is good to know for a non-native speaker like me! (Japanese sentences often have _no_ subject at all. Even a native English teacher once told me to use "this" instead of "it" if it is nonreferential.)

So how should the original sentence above ("This is why we foo the bar") be rewritten if we foo the bar (1) because glorps do not move and (2) because the sproggle jammed? (The original CACM article does not tell "this", either.)
(1) "We foo the bar to free the glorp." (2) "Fooing the bar unjams the sproggle."
I'm with Ezra.

Allow me to quote from Lyons, Semantics: Volume 2, p.668

"'This' and 'that', in English, may be used deictically to refer not only to objects and persons in the situation and to linguistic entities of various kinds in the text or co-text..."

(Also see p.667.)

In your example, 'this' refers to the previous sentence.

I've never heard of a rule of English stating that "'this' refers to the closest preceding noun phrase". As far as I know, finding the referent of an anaphor (which your claim would suggest 'this' is) is a particularly difficult computational linguistics problem and there are few simple rules.

Of course none of this(!) is relevant to whether or not your advice is sound. I'm just quibbling over your grammatical claim. :-)
I learnt this as 'vague pronoun referent' (rather than non-referential 'this'). Which is a bit more precise: the 'this' does refer to something, but that something is not completely clear.
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