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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.
If, for example, you say:

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.


The centre

The first thing to get clear is the concept of deictic centre.  That is to say, the point, time or person from which everything else is relative.  For example


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 diagram may help a little.

deixis graphic

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.

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 extremely helpful.  Like this:
bring fetch take


Personal deixis

There are three forms or 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

Other languages

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.

gender and pronouns

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.

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.

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
    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.

levels of politeness

In many European languages, too, 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 other Italic 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.


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.
    *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.


Temporal deixis

There are two main types of temporal reference:

  1. Adverbials
    The obvious ones are items such as tomorrow, yesterday, the day before, next year, then, now, afterwards, the following month, 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
          I had seen him before
      relates to a more to a less distant past
          I will have spoken to him
      relates to a more to a less distant future

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:
    *I have done it in 1984
mistakenly using an aspect which refers to the present for an absolute time
    *I already did it
mistakenly using an absolute tense form when a relative one is required (although this is acceptable in some varieties of English)
    *I will speak to him by then
mistakenly using the simple, absolute form of the tense to refer to a time relative to a more distant future
and so on.


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 prepositional phrases, demonstrative determiners or adverbs.
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.

Middle English also had a distal form 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 yon in ScotsSome languages, which include Japanese and Turkish, also have three forms:

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.


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, 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 ... and both of those are examples of discourse deixis; the first anaphoric and the second cataphoric.

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.
When someone presents a proposal or an opinion, for example, it is perfectly acceptable to respond with either
    That is an interesting idea
    These are interesting ideas
However, we cannot refer 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.
In brief:
this/these: anaphoric and cataphoric
that/those: anaphoric only.


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

deixis wheel

Adapted from Harman, 1989.

Related guides
tense and aspect for more relational and absolute tenses
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
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

Harman, I. P, 1989, Teaching indirect speech: deixis points the way, English Language Teaching Journal 44-3-8, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Moriarty, L, 2013, The Husband’s Secret, Barnes and Noble