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My understanding of esto vs. este/esta is that esto substitutes the noun/pronoun whereas este/esta helps identify another noun/pronoun.

However, my intuition broke down in the following examples found on FluentU:

Este es mi perro.
Esta es mi casa.
Esto es un carro.

Does it have something to do with the possesive adjective mi?

If you could help me to build some intuition as to how I know which one to use, I would greatly appreciate it!

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Your intuition is correct and here's the tricky bit:

Este es mi perro. = can be said = Este perro es mio. Esta es mi casa. = Esta casa es mia.

So, there you can clearly see the adjectival use of este and esta.

Whereas: Esto es un carro. ≠ Esto carro does not work.

The pronouns can function as nouns. Whereas esto, a noun cannot be an adjective.

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The neuter demonstrative "esto" (as well as "eso" and "aquello") is used to refer to something that is not defined (this thing, that thing) or to a situation:

  • Esto (que tiene un chasis y cuatro ruedas) es un carro. (This object, with a body and four wheels, is a car.)

  • Esto es un desastre. (This is a disaster.)

The neuter form can also be used pejoratively even for people, for example:

  • ¿Eso es un amigo? (Is that what you call a friend?)

as opposed to:

  • ¿Ese es tu amigo? (Is that (guy) your friend?)

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