An ELT Glossary : Deixis

Deictic items are those that can only be understood if the listener/reader has additional contextual information. The word itself does not have a definite referent without that information. For example :

A : When are you going to the supermarket again?
B :  I shan't be going there again this week. I went yesterday. Do you need something

The items you,  I,  the,  there,  this week, and  yesterday are all deictic :

  • To understand exactly which supermarket is meant by "the" supermarket (exophoric reference), you need access to the shared knowledge of the world of the speaker and listener.
  • To fully understand I and you (personal deixis) you need to know who the speaker and listener are - which of course changes between turns. You in the first utterance does not refer to the same person as you in the second utterance
  • To understand exactly which days are indicated by this week, and yesterday (temporal deixis) you need to know the date when the utterance was spoken.
  • To understand where there refers to (anaphoric reference/spatial deixis) , you need to have heard the preceding utterance in the discourse. 

Further reading

Levinson, Pragmatics, CUP

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