Difference between este, ese and aquel (demonstrative adjectives)

The Adjetivo demostrativo is used to modify a noun so that we know exactly which one is being referred to.

Unlike English, Spanish has three sets of demonstrative adjectives, which agree in gender and number with the noun they modify, therefore there are 12 demonstrative adjectives in total.

Este / esta / estos / estas = this / these

Demonstrative adjective 

Masculine Feminine

Singular 

este
this
esta
this

Plural

estos
these

estas
these

Read and listen to these examples:

Me encanta este libro de Miguel Delibes.I love this book by Miguel Delibes.

¿Vas a comprar esta falda?Are you going to buy this skirt? ("You" singular informal)

Mis amigos quieren comer estos chocolates.My friends want to eat these chocolates.

No necesito estas sillas ahora.I don't need these chairs now.

In the examples above, este, esta, estos and estas are translated as this and these and they all refer to nouns in near proximity compared to the speaker.

Ese / esa / esos / esas = that / those 

Demonstrative adjective 

Masculine Feminine

Singular 

ese
that
esa
that

Plural

esos
those

esas
those

Read and listen to these examples:

Los montañeros se perdieron en ese monte.The mountaineers got lost in that mountain.

Elisa durmió en esa cama.Elisa slept in that bed.

Esos viajes son un poco caros.Those trips are a bit expensive.

No entiendo esas palabras en inglés.I don't understand those words in English.

In the examples above, ese, esa, esos and esas are translated as that and those and they all refer to:
1. objects/people that are near the listener (not the speaker)
2. objects/people that are far from the speaker (medium distance)

Aquelaquella / aquellos / aquellas = that (over there) / those (over there)

Demonstrative adjective 

Masculine Feminine

Singular 

aquel
that (over there)
aquella
that (over there)

Plural

aquellos
those (over there)

aquellas
those (over there)

Read and listen to these examples:

¿Ves aquel avión en el cielo?Do you see that plane in the sky (over there)?

Aquella fotografía antigua del pueblo era preciosa.That old photograph (over there) of the town was lovely.

Prefiero aquellos lápices de colores.I prefer those coloured pencils (over there).

María olvidó aquellas chaquetas en el tren.María forgot those jackets (over there) on the train.

In the examples above, aquel, aquella, aquellos and aquellas are translated as that (over there) and those (over there) and they all refer to a further distance from the speaker.
Bear in mind that although demonstrative adjectives are used generally to denote physical things/people, they can also be used to refer to abstract things or ideas. In these cases which demonstrative adjective we use depends on how "near" or "far" we feel from these abstract things or ideas.

Have a look at these examples:

¿Recuerdas ese viaje tan bonito que hicimos hace dos años?Do you remember that lovely journey we took 2 years ago?

¿Recuerdas aquel viaje tan bonito que hicimos hace 2 años?Do you remember that lovely journey we took 2 years ago?

The speaker feels "closer" to the trip on the first sentence while on the second the speaker sees it as a more "far away" idea, but they are both referring to the same trip. So, using ese or aquel is sometimes subjective.

Remember that in Spanish there are 3 distances when using demonstrative adjectives!
In English we only have 2: near and far. So the third one (aquel, aquella, aquellos, aquellas) is generally translated as "that/those over there".

See also Using aquí, ahí and allí = here and there.

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Examples and resources

¿Ves aquel avión en el cielo?Do you see that plane in the sky (over there)?
Elisa durmió en esa cama.Elisa slept in that bed.
María olvidó aquellas chaquetas en el tren.María forgot those jackets (over there) on the train.
Aquella fotografía antigua del pueblo era preciosa.That old photograph (over there) of the town was lovely.
No necesito estas sillas ahora.I don't need these chairs now.
¿Vas a comprar esta falda?Are you going to buy this skirt? ("You" singular informal)
No entiendo esas palabras en inglés.I don't understand those words in English.
Mis amigos quieren comer estos chocolates.My friends want to eat these chocolates.
¿Recuerdas ese viaje tan bonito que hicimos hace dos años?Do you remember that lovely journey we took 2 years ago?
Esos viajes son un poco caros.Those trips are a bit expensive.
Prefiero aquellos lápices de colores.I prefer those coloured pencils (over there).
¿Recuerdas aquel viaje tan bonito que hicimos hace 2 años?Do you remember that lovely journey we took 2 years ago?
Los montañeros se perdieron en ese monte.The mountaineers got lost in that mountain.
Me encanta este libro de Miguel Delibes.I love this book by Miguel Delibes.
I'll be right with you...