logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Deixis

centred
centred

Deixis is derived from the Greek word for reference or showing (the adjective is deictic, incidentally).  It concerns the ability of language to identify objects, times, people or ideas with reference to something else.  In other words, it refers to things which can only be understood in some kind of context.
In simpler terms, deixis refers to the way we signal here or there, now or then and you or I.

A definition:

The name given to those aspects of language whose interpretation is relative to the occasion of utterance
Fillmore (1966) in Harman (1989)

If, for example, you say:

I like it here
We can only understand what here refers to by knowing where you are – here is a relative not absolute concept of space.
The centre is here.
I like him
We can only understand what him refers to by knowing who you are.
The centre is I.
She is going tomorrow
We can only understand what tomorrow means by knowing when this is said.
The centre is now.

In the first sentence, here is an adverb (although some analyses will refer to it as a pro-form standing for this place) but deictic pointers can fall into various word classes.
In the second example, the pointer is a pronoun and in the third example it is another adverb (also classifiable as a noun acting adverbially, in this case).


centre

The centre

The deictic centre is the place, time or person from which everything else is relative.  For example

It is impossible to understand a simple sentence such as:
    We are going there tomorrow
without knowing what the deictic centre is.  In other words, we need to know who is speaking, when they are speaking and where they are speaking.  We also, incidentally, need to know whether we includes or excludes the hearer.


4

4 types of deixis

Personal deixis
refers to other people (apart from the speaker / writer)
Temporal deixis
refers to time other than the moment of speaking / writing
Spatial deixis
refers to a place other than here
Discourse deixis
is not in the diagram below.  It refers to something mentioned earlier in a text (spoken or written) or to something which will follow, in other words, a stretch of discourse.  This is sometimes referred to as Textual deixis.

This diagram may help a little.

deixis

We can, in fact, move the centre away from the speaker / writer and we often do.  For example:

  1. Keeping the centre in place:
        I am going to London soon

    The deictic centre is I and now
    There is no shifting of the centre because go indicates movement away from here and soon is related to now.
  2. Moving the centre:
        I am coming to see you
    The deictic centre has been shifted from here to there because come indicates movement towards.  In many languages, that would be more logically rendered as
        I am going to see you
    but, in English, that would be ambiguous because we don't know if the going to bit refers to a current intention or a movement away from here.
    In English we conventionally move the centre to the person being addressed.  It is considered polite.

This shifting of the centre accounts for a great deal of confusion with related verbs such as bring-fetch-take and come-go in English because other languages conceptualise spatial and temporal relationships differently.  Japanese, for example, always uses the equivalents of come and go from the point of view of the speaker.  German tends also to be speaker centred in this respect.
It results in errors such as
    *I'll bring you to the station
    *I'll go to you now
    Are you coming to the cinema with us?  *Yes, I'm going.
Diagrammatically representing the deictic centre to learners is often helpful.  Like this:
bring fetch take

In the last example with bring the speaker remains on the left but has moved the centre to the hearer on the right, hence the use of bring rather than take and come rather than go which would be the preferred forms in many languages.
Much confusion and distress can be avoided by simply explaining to learners that in English we often imagine ourselves in the hearer's place (moving the deictic centre) and that explains why we can say say:
    I'll bring a bottle to John's party next week
The speaker has simply moved the centre to John and therefore is happy to use a verb which means towards me rather than away from me.
The speaker could also have said:
    I'll take a bottle to John's party next week
without moving the centre but if she were speaking to John on the telephone, it is almost certain that she would use bring because that is considered courteous.
Out here on the web, people have posted all kinds of weird reasons for the anomalous use of these verbs in English but it's actually quite simple once one is armed with an understanding of the rudiments of deixis.


people

Personal deixis

There are three forms of personal deixis:

  1. Those directly involved – the speaker and the person / people addressed:
        I am leaving now
        Can you help?
  2. Third parties not involved in the exchange but the subject of it:
        She's sitting next to you.
  3. People mentioned in the exchange but not nearby or involved in it:
        I wanted to be here earlier but they delayed me
gender

Gender and pronouns

English does not distinguish between nouns by gender unless the sex is clear but number is another matter.  In English, they is often used to refer to a singular person whose sex is not known:
    The person who wrote this is illiterate; they can't even spell.
The use of they, their and them to refer to a singular entity whose sex is not known or irrelevant is attested in English from at least the 14th century.  Only when Latin-influenced grammarians rose to prominence did the insistence on the non-marked use of he arise.  The use of the plural pronoun and determiners, they, their, theirs, to denote a singular referent is making something of a comeback.

English also has no gender marker for plural entities: you, we, they are all unmarked forms.  When we say
    They arrived late
we have no idea whether the group is male only, female only or mixed.  We do not even know if we are referring to people or objects.

Other languages distinguish, e.g., between plural females and plural males (such as French does with elles and ils) so it is clear who is being referred to.  For a mixed group, the masculine plural is used in most languages which make this distinction.  However, in French the word for person is personne and it is feminine so when the plural (les personnes) is referred to, the appropriate pronoun is elles even if all the people are male.  Similar phenomena exist in other languages (Spanish, for example).
There is a guide, linked below, to how languages handle gender and how gender marking in English may be avoided.

curiosity

Gender and nouns

Languages which distinguish all nouns by gender (as very many do) will usually demand the use of the gender-specific pronoun.  For example, in both German and Greek, the word for group is feminine (die Gruppe, η ομάδα [ee omada]).  In these cases, the feminine pronoun must be used to refer to it, even if everyone in the group is male.  We get, therefore:
    The group has arrived and she is getting on her bus
English, incidentally, gets confused here and speakers will use a plural pronoun to refer to the group (which is clearly a singular count noun), so we can have either:
    The group has arrived and it is getting on the bus
or
    The group have arrived and they are getting on the bus
We can even allow:
    The group has arrived and they are getting on the bus
in which we promiscuously mix singular verb forms with plural pronoun forms.
For more, see the guide to concord linked in the list of related guides at the end.

judge

Social deixis

We claimed above that there are 4 main categories of deixis: personal, spatial, temporal and discourse.
Some writers (e.g., Levinson, 1983) also identify a fifth category, social deixis.  It comes in two flavours:

  1. Relative social deixis
    In many European languages there is a distinction between familiar and polite forms of the pronoun you and the distinction signals closeness and/or formality.  This is called the T-V distinction after the French (or Latin) tu and vous forms.  German, incidentally, also has a plural familiar form (ihr) which many Romance languages in Europe lack.
    Many East- and South-Asian languages, such as Japanese, also have distinguishing honorifics (such as san) which make more complex and subtle social relationships clear.
    English is defective in this area, making no distinction in the pronoun between social closeness or distance or even the number of people addressed.  It just uses you.
    This form of deixis is referred to as relative because its use depends on the relationship between speakers / writers and hearers / readers.  For example, whether or not one uses the familiar or polite pronoun for you in most languages which make the distinction depends on closeness of relationship between speakers and sometimes on the addressees' provenance (in Greek, for example, the familiar form is customary for all fellow residents of a village regardless of how well they are known to the speaker).
  2. Absolute social deixis
    In this area English is somewhat richer in having conventional ways to address people especially in certain, usually formal, settings.  Such terms include, e.g., Your Honour, Ms., Miss, Mrs., Sir, Madam, Your Grace, Captain, Mr. President, Your Lordship, Ma'am, Doctor, Ladies and Gentlemen and so on.
    Absolute forms such as these are confined to certain settings, of course, and a judge is unlikely to be addressed as Your Honour or My Lord by his family and friends although that term would be used even by close contacts in professional settings.
    Even when reference is not direct but to a third person, there are conventions of identification so we speak of, e.g., Her Majesty, His Excellency, Mr., His Honour, Mr. Chairman, The Very Reverend and so on.

Levinson (1969) gives examples from many languages in which the use not only of terms of address but also syntax, the entire pronoun system and other language items are dependent on the conventions of social deixis.  The conventions apply in some languages, not only to whom one is speaking but also to any reference to a third party and even depend on the status of any bystanders.

error

Error

The different ways in which the learners' first languages deal with personal deixis is the source of a good deal of error such as:
    *The team got off the bus and she ran into the stadium.
or
    *The group of friends met at 9 and then it went to the cinema.
which is grammatically sound but almost impossible to a native-speaker's ear.
as well as stylistic errors such as
    You give me that
which is fine in languages in which the pronoun is already marked for politeness but can cause offence in English if no politeness routine such as Please would, ... I wonder if you could ... etc. is used.

include

Inclusiveness

In English the form you refers to other people including the hearer and does not include the speaker and the form we includes the speaker(s) and may or may not include the hearers.
Other languages do things differently and distinguish between a pronoun meaning you not including the hearer and you including the hearer as well as having a separate pronoun for we not including the hearer and we including the hearer.
English cannot do this and cannot, additionally, distinguish between they including a third party and they excluding a third party.


watch

Temporal deixis

There are two main types of temporal reference:

  1. Adverbials
    The obvious ones are items such as tomorrow, yesterday, the day before yesterday, next year, then, now, afterwards, already, yet, the week before last etc.  They are usually adverbs or prepositional phrases acting as adverbials (although an alternative analysis is to call some of them nouns or noun phrases acting as adverbials.).
    Absolute dates are excluded from this category so expressions such as the 4th of March 1627 are not deictically related to now in the way that 10 years ago is because it can be understood whenever the sentence is spoken.  The prepositional phrase 10 years ago can only be understood by knowing when the statement is made.
  2. Tense forms
    There are two types of tense in English:
    1. Absolute tenses such as the past simple or the future with will.  For example:
          She sold the house
          I will be 35 next birthday
      which both refer to time not relative to another time.  Deictically, these two utterances are related to now (where we are centred).
    2. Relative tenses such as the perfect forms in English.  For example:
          I have broken the lock
          I had seen him before
          I will have spoken to him
      relate deictically to other times:
          I have broken the lock
      relates to the present because it is now broken and unusable.  It is the past within the present.
          I had seen him before
      relates a more to a less distant past.  It is the past within the past.
          I will have spoken to him
      relates a more to a less distant future.  It is the past within the future.
      Deictically, relative tenses relate one time to another, not necessarily the time of speaking.

For more, see the guides to tense and aspect linked in the list of related guides at the end.

Other languages

Some languages do not exhibit relative tense forms so the concepts in English will be obscure.  Others may use absolute terms for concepts such as the previous year, the next day etc.

Not understanding the concept of relative time often leads to familiar errors such as:

and so on.


tunnel

Spatial deixis

In Modern English there are essentially two forms:

  1. Near the speaker
        This is a nice place
        I am lucky to be here
        These are wonderful
  2. Far from the speaker
        I want to move there
        That was a wonderful place to spend a holiday
        I think those look good

Spatial deixis is usually achieved by the use of:

  1. prepositional phrases:
        She put it in the corner
        They live behind the church
  2. demonstrative determiners:
        My colleagues gave me that picture
        Do you want this disc?
  3. demonstrative pronouns:
        She wants those
        I'd be happy with this
  4. adverbs:
        Leave it there
        Go away
  5. nouns (also analysable as nouns acting as adverbials):
        They arrived yesterday
        They want to go home

Just as tenses are relative and absolute, prepositions exhibit two forms of deixis:

  1. Relative position, from where the person is, was or will be.
    If the speaker moves, the sentence may no longer be true:
        The house is on the left
        I can't see it; it's behind the tree
  2. Absolute position, but often relative to something else, in which the speaker's position is irrelevant.
    The sentence remains true wherever the speaker is:
        The car park is opposite / outside / near the school
        He has a house in the south of Spain

Unless it is otherwise clear from the context, spatial deixis is centred on the speaker / writer but there are many cases when we can move the centre.  Here's an example of giving directions over the phone or in an e-mail:

When you get to the lane, look for a blue gate on the left and that is where I live

If one assumes that the addresser is at home, it is clear that he/she is moving the centre of deixis to the addressee.  From the speaker / writer's point of view, the blue gate is probably not on the left and this not that is where home is.
The speaker has also moved the time centre to the future, i.e., the moment the person arrives at the lane and that may be months away.

Other languages

In English, it is often the case that we project ourselves into another place.  We get, for example, when speaking on the telephone to someone who is at home:
    I'm coming home tomorrow
In this case, the addressee is not in the same place as the speaker and is near to or in the speaker's home.  In effect, we are imagining speaking from where the listener is, not where we are.
Alternatively, when addressing someone who is in the same place, we will hear:
    I'm going home tomorrow
because there is no need to move the deictic centre.  The verb simply indicates movement away from the current location.
It bears repeating that languages differ in the use of simple verbs like this and it is a source of error.

In fact, in English, not moving the deictic centre may result in confusion or be deliberately done for comic or dramatic effect.  Consider the old Tommy Cooper (an English comedian) joke:

So I rang the guesthouse bell and a lady opened the window and said:
"What do you want?"
"I want to stay here," I replied.
"Well stay there, then," she said and shut the window.

The key to getting the joke lies in the visitor and landlady's different understandings of here and where the deictic centre should be.

Other languages do not move the centre so easily and that accounts for phone answering messages in many languages which tell the caller that
    I'm not there
not
    I'm not here at the moment
.

It also accounts for some confusion between go and come.
For example:
    Are you coming to the party?
is not the same as
    Are you going to the party?
The first implies either that you are accompanying us / me or that it is my party in my home we are referring to.
The second carries no such sense and may be referring to a party to which the speaker has not been invited.
There is rich ground for covert error here.

The verbs leave (and depart) and arrive may also be subject to the movement of the deictic centre.  Usually, if we ask:
    Has she arrived?
we are referring to whether or not she has reached the speaker's place but that may not be the case because the speaker may be moving the deictic centre to the hearer and enquiring whether or not she has reached the hearer.
A similar phenomenon occurs with leave / depart and:
    Has he left?
may refer to whether the person in question is no longer in the speaker's vicinity or no longer in the hearer's vicinity.

Old and Middle English, in common with a range of modern languages including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Georgian, Basque, Korean and Japanese had a third, medial, distinction to describe things far away from both speakers (yonder is an example) and many modern languages have this form.  It still exists in some dialect forms of English such as the use of the determiner yon in Scots.
Modern Standard English can do this but requires a periphrastic form to make the distinction clear so we have:
    this car (proximal and near the speaker)
    that car (medial and far from the speaker but possibly close to the hearer)
and
    that car over there (distal and far from both speaker and hearer)
German uses the same form for the demonstrative determiners that and those as the definite article but when it means that or those rather than the, it is stressed.
Languages which have the threefold distinction can refer to objects near the speaker, objects near the hearer and objects far from both the speaker and the hearer, work like this usually:

Speakers of these language will often have difficulty deciding which form is appropriate in English.  It results in some covert, and not so covert, error such as saying
    I want that (when this is meant)
    I went here (when came is meant)
and so on.

In other languages, the terms here and there are very differently interpreted and may depend, for example, on whether the place being referred to is at a higher or lower altitude or upstream or downstream from the speaker.


talking

Discourse deixis

We need to be slightly careful to distinguish here between anaphoric and cataphoric referencing and discourse deixis proper.

Referencing within a text is covered in the guide to cohesion linked in the list of related guides at the end.  It refers to the use of markers to stand for or link to an item previously mentioned or yet to appear in the text.  For example, in:
    When he got to it, he found the house was much as he had expected; the place was old and shabby.
we have two cohesive devices.

  1. The pronoun, it, which stands for the house and refers forward in the text.  That's cataphoric referencing.
  2. A general term, the place, which refers back and stands for the house.  That's anaphoric referencing.

Both references are to something in the text so they are both endophoric references.

Discourse deixis is different because it does not relate to a specific item but to a stretch of discourse.  Such a stretch of discourse can be very long or quite short.  For example, the novel The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty begins with the line:
    It was all because of the Berlin Wall.
In this, the marker It refers to everything which follows, the rest of the novel, not to a particular item.  That is discourse deixis.
It needn't be a literary device, of course, although it often is.  Simply responding to an anecdote with
    That's fascinating
is an instance where one person's entire discourse is referred to with the term That.
Equally, we can include in our own discourse something like
    ...and that's why ...
or
    This is a good one ...
or
    Listen to this ...
and those are examples of discourse deixis; the first anaphoric and the second and third cataphoric.

demonstrative

this, these, that, those

The marker this / these can refer anaphorically to a previous stretch of discourse and cataphorically to something to follow but the marker that / those can only refer anaphorically.

At the end of a presentation or proposal, for example, it is perfectly acceptable to respond with:
    That is an interesting idea
    This is an interesting idea
    Those are interesting ideas

or
    These are interesting ideas
and all the references are anaphoric, referring to the ideas presented beforehand.

However, we cannot refer cataphorically to what is to follow with that or those so something like
    *I won't be able to come and those are my reasons: firstly, ...
is unacceptable but
    I won't be able to come and this is the reason ...
or
    I won't be able to come and these are the reasons ...
are both acceptable.

In brief:
this / these: anaphoric and cataphoric
that / those: anaphoric only.


talk

Indirect speech

... and the boss told me she would ...  

Deixis plays a central role in getting reported or indirect speech right, of course, because by its nature indirect speech is often a relation of speech which occurred in another place, at another time and directed to another person.  In other words, the forms are subject to spatial, temporal and personal deixis and change according to where the centre is at the time of reporting.

All four forms of deixis are relevant to getting the forms right.  There is a guide to indirect speech on the site, linked below, so examples will do here.

  1. Temporal deixis
    Reporting
        I am catching the train tomorrow
    as
        I said I was catching the train the next day
    in which the tense form changes along with the adverbial to show that the reporting time centre differs from the time centre when the utterance was made.
  2. Spatial deixis
    Reporting
        Please put it here
    as
        The order was to put it outside the garage
    in which the fact that the reporting is happening in another place is reflected in the amount of detail which needs to be added to make the sense clear.
  3. Personal deixis
    Reporting
        Will you please be quiet
    as
        I was told to be quiet
    because the addressee is now the speaker and the pronouns need to be altered accordingly with the shift in deictic centre.
  4. Discourse deixis
    Reporting a long turn as something like
        She explained in great detail why she was late
    is often the preferred form to save time and avoid irrelevant details which, because of the change to the spatial and temporal centre, are no longer required.

Summary

Discourse deixis is impossible to treat graphically but the other three sorts can be:

summary

Adapted from Harman, 1989.


Try a really simple test.



Related guides
tense and aspect for more relational and absolute tenses
indirect or reported speech for the guide to an area which is hard to understand without an appreciation of the role of deixis
concord for more on the problems in English concerning number and reference
substitution and ellipsis for more about how these are used to maintain cohesion
cohesion for more on this area concerning referencing per se
pro-forms for more on pronouns and more
semantics for a general consideration of meaning
gender for the guide to how languages signal gender and how it may be avoided in English
language, thought and culture for a guide which also considers how other languages may encode concepts of time and place and what effect that may have on how one thinks
discourse guides the in-service index to this area


References:
Harman, IP, 1989, Teaching indirect speech: deixis points the way, English Language Teaching Journal 44-3-8, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Levinson, SC, 1979, Pragmatics and Social Deixis: Reclaiming the Notion of Conventional Implicature, Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, pp. 206-223
Levinson, SC, 1983, Pragmatics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Moriarty, L, 2013, The Husband’s Secret, Barnes and Noble