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Deixis: in-service training sessions

getting me from here now to there then

At initial level, training courses often consider reference using pronouns, prepositional phrases and other adverbials but rarely much else.  At in-service level, people now need to get to grips with the entire system of deixis, without which concepts of relativity in language are hard to handle.

It is actually quite unlikely that people starting in-service training have ever given the area much organised thought, preferring to teach items such as here, then, that, they etc. as they arise.


The key ideas

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.
Deixis is not the same as cohesion, although that, too, concerns referencing.  If your trainees crave a definition of the term, try:

The name given to those aspects of language whose interpretation is relative to the occasion of utterance
Fillmore (1966) in Harman, I P, 1989, Teaching indirect speech: deixis points the way, English Language Teaching Journal, Volume 44, No 3, pp230-238, Oxford: Oxford University Press

A simpler way to express this is to say it is how language works to identify here vs. not here, now vs. not now, someone else vs. me and this vs. that.
Worksheets linked from this page concern:

  • Deixis markers
    • personal
    • spatial
    • temporal
    • textual
  • Other languages and errors
  • The grammar
    • gender and person
    • politeness
    • adverbials
    • relative vs. absolute tense forms
    • relative and absolute position
    • discourse demonstratives


Four types of deixis

Because this is not an area which is covered on most initial training courses, you will need to present the area through exemplification.
Here are a few ideas you may like to use, taken from the guide:

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.

It is important, before getting to any of the tasks on the worksheet, to ensure that people have a clear understanding of what is meant by the deictic centre.
In most circumstances, the deictic centres are: here for place, now for time and I for people.  In other words

As we saw in the guide to this area, speakers often move the deictic centre for communicative effect and that is a source of much error and confusion, not only for learners of the language.

One way to make this clear is to consider learner errors and try to explain them.
The worksheet starts from here with Task 1.

Task 1 of the worksheet asks people to identify the error and, much more importantly, try to explain why it occurred.
The answers (roughly) are:

  1. Confusion of bring and go because of misunderstanding the centre of deixis
  2. Transfer from L1 of a feminine pronoun for a singular concept
  3. Confusion of come and go because of misunderstanding the centre of deixis
  4. Use of that (not this) for cataphoric reference
  5. Non-use of past simple because of not understanding the relative sense of the present perfect
  6. Misuse of a relative tense form (will have) instead of an absolute tense (will)
  7. Misuse of this instead of that because of not moving the centre to the hearer
  8. Misuse of fetch instead of bring because of not understanding the dual nature of the verb (go and get and bring)
  9. Misuse of go when come is meant because of not moving the centre to the hearer
  10. Misuse of come instead of go for a place away from the speaker and hearer

All of these errors stem from a misunderstanding of how deixis works in English.  It is unlikely at this stage that people will get these answers.  Now is not the time to explain but the exercise should be revisited at the end of the session.

Task 2 focuses people on the four types of deixis at issue.
The answers are:
    1 and 8: personal deixis
    2 and 6: spatial deixis
    3 and 5: discourse / textual deixis
    4 and 7: temporal deixis
Task 3 gets people to think about deixis use in English.  It is interesting for people to translate the utterances into another language they know and see what changes.  Things to note are:

  1. The centre is moved from the speaker to the hearer in the first sentence but remains on the speaker in the second sentence.  Other languages don't do this.
  2. The use of yesterday relies on the speaker and hearer sharing the same time frame.  The use of a date is absolute and does not depend on anything else.  The date is fixed but yesterday is a relative term.
  3. English uses they as a pronoun unmarked for gender.  Other languages do not.
  4. The second of these is grammatically correct (the reference is to a singular noun) but almost impossible in English.
  5. English often uses politeness strategies because the verb form is unmarked for distance and unfamiliarity (compare other languages which mark the verb and the pronoun to show deference).
  6. English distinguishes between relative and absolute tense forms.  Other languages rarely do.

Task 4 concerns recognising the ways the grammar realises deixis.  The answers are:

  1. Both spatial and temporal.  The adverb in refers to the position the speak had then (but is not necessarily current).  The adverb then refers to a time before now relative to the event the speaker is relating.
  2. The adverb there refers to spatial deixis, specifically a place away from the speaker.
  3. The demonstrative determiner that refer to spatial location away from the speaker.
  4. The preposition behind is a relative spatial marker because it will vary depending on the speaker or hearer's position.
  5. The preposition opposite is an absolute spatial marker, unchanged wherever the speaker or hearer is positioned.
  6. The pronoun these refer to a plural number near the speaker.
  7. This is personal deixis referring to a female person in neither the speaker nor hearer's group.
  8. The pronoun that is used here as discourse deixis and refers anaphorically to the whole content of what was said.
  9. This is relative temporal deixis which can only be understood with knowledge of when the statement is made.  (Getting people to put the utterance in indirect or reported speech reveals its nature.)
  10. The verb bring refers to spatial deixis (toward the speaker or the speaker's future whereabouts).

Before finishing, it is advisable to return to Task 1 to see how (and if) participants' responses are changed.


Related areas

The worksheets here cover the essence of deixis in English and a knowledge of the area makes understanding many other aspects of the language very much easier.

The areas linked below are guides to other areas into which you may choose to extend the analysis.

Related guides
deixis the main in-service guide
reported / indirect speech the main in-service guide to an area dependent on deixis if it is to be understood
A-Z index where you can find guides to or containing specific concepts and terms