Definition of term On Anaphora

Anaphoric Reference is the process of referring back to glean meaning from something that has already been mentioned. ‘The cook took off her apron. She hung it on a peg’ – her and she refer back to the cook. It refers back to the apron. Anaphor is very common and perfectly normal in speech, there’s nothing especially literary about it, but in the hands of an author it can be exploited to literary effect.

Demonstration of Anaphoric Reference in action

The text below is some dialogue from a novel. First read the text then click below to see anaphoric reference made explicit.

In the text below, the anaphoric references are shown in blue.

“But seriously, Mrs. ‘Opkins,” I says, “you don’t really mean to tell me as you made that (referred to previously as an ‘and-knitted abortion, which had itself been referred to earlier in the text as a jumper) from a pattern?”

“Yes,” she (Mrs. ‘Opkins) says, “I must admit as it (the ‘and-knitted abortion) ain’t come out quite like the picture, but it (the ‘and-knitted abortion) ain’t so bad for a beginner, is it (so bad)?”

“No-o,” I says doubtful, “I suppose not.  I dessay if you was to give the pattern to a blind imbycile she (the blind imbycile) might make a worser job of it (knitting the jumper).  I don’t say she (the blind imbycile) would, but she (the blind imbycile) might.”

“Well,” she (Mrs. ‘Opkins’) says, “I’ll lend you the pattern and you can see,” which she (Mrs. ‘Opkins’) does. She (Mrs. ‘Opkins’)’s quite a nice woman in some ways, and except for ‘er (Mrs. ‘Opkins’) face and figure, quite good-looking in ‘er (Mrs. ‘Opkins’) own style; after all, we (females) can’t all be Venices.

Hide explicit anaphoric references.

Click here to see anaphoric reference made explicit.

Literary Exercise

Below is an extract from a novel first published in 1931. First read the text and identify the anaphoric references. Then click below to see anaphoric reference made explicit.

In the text below, the anaphoric references are marked in blue.

“Well, now, poetry, Jermyn,” resumed Sir Percy. “Do people ever make anything out of it (poetry), as far as you know?”

“Well, I hope I shall make a few hundreds a year in the end. People don’t often take it (poetry) up as a life work. I shall have to be content with a very little for a long time, and to be a poor man at last.”

“Well, now, and does that (being a poor man) content you?” said Sir Percy. “That (being a poor man) is what you want, is it (what you want)? Well, of course, poets are not people we can understand. They (poets) would not be what they (poets) are if we could (understand them).”

“No, they (poets) might as well be something else,” said Rachel. I wish I had ever been misunderstood. People so often give us our due, and that (our due) is bound to remind us of it (that we are understandable and/or that we are not poets).”

“Of course my life work must involve many kinds of sacrifice, perhaps nearly all kinds,” said Jermyn. “I am more than content.”

“Oh, many kinds of sacrifice, nearly all kinds?” said Sir Percy, lifting his (Sir Percy’s) head. “Nearly all kinds? And you are content? More than content? And your poor mother does not like it (the sacrifices or Jermyn’s being a poet)? No, I am sure she (your mother) would not (like the sacrifices and/or like her son’s being a poet).”

“I think she (my mother) will be reconciled to it (the sacrifice, and/or my being a poet), when she (my mother) realises that any powers I have tend that way,” said Jermyn. “She (my mother) can hardly forbid my making sacrifices for my own sake. It (making sacrifices) is for nobody else’s (sake).”

“Oh, for nobody else’s (sake)?” said Sir Percy. “But what good is it (making sacrifices) then? I mean sacrifice not for someone else? I thought sacrifice – I mean sacrifice for your own sake, isn’t that (making sacrifices for your own sake) a little fanatical, Jermyn? I don’t think that (making sacrifices for your own sake) is what your mother means, when she (your mother) is herself (your mother) just a thought serious-minded, you know.”

“No, no. She (my mother) does not mean that (that I should make sacrifices for my own sake). She thinks I am a pompous, sluggish young jackanapes,” said Jermyn.

“Yes, but, now, what about what your mother thinks?” said Sir Percy coaxingly. “I don’t mean what we know hasn’t entered her (your mother’s) mind. But isn’t there something in it (what your mother thinks)? Because all this sacrifice for nobody! Well, you know. Now why not think of your mother and father, instead of sacrifice for people outside, for nobody at all?

“Griselda, it (dummy subject) is too considerate to make us think it (being a poet, sacrifice) is a laughing matter,” said Rachel. “I do appreciate it (your consideration), and Percy would if he could.”

“I shall have to sacrifice my mother’s satisfaction with the other things,” said Jermyn. “It (my mother’s satisfaction) is the sacrifice I shall like least to make.”

“Oh, well, sacrifice,” said Sir Percy, accepting persistence in this line. “Well, so you must have it (sacrifice), Jermyn. Well, well, there seem to me to be better things. And your mother’s satisfaction. Well, sacrifice has to be sacrifice; I see that it (sacrifice) does (have to be sacrifice). But you must have your way, and join the martyrs, the poets, take what seems to you the right course. Why, there are the girls, Rachel. There are Mellicent and Polly, back from their (Mellicent and Polly’s) picnic in time to get something besides their (Mellicent and Polly’s) sandwiches. Sandwiches are not very much.”

“They (sandwiches) are nothing. Nobody can eat them (sandwiches),” said Rachel. “Well, my dears (Mellicent and Polly). Give your sandwiches to Merton for the fowls.”

“We have finished them (the sandwiches), Mater,” said the younger girl.

“I thought that (eating sandwiches) was why places were so untidy after picnics, that people took sandwiches and could not eat them (sandwiches). I don’t understand why so much (of the sandwiches) is left, if they (sandwiches) can be used. Mellicent, you must make up to Jermyn for being told that poetry is not worth a sacrifice, that his (Jermyn’s) mother ought not to be sacrificed to it (poetry), when of course she ought. It (dummy subject) is trying in such subtle ways to be told that you must not sacrifice your mother.”


Hide explicit anaphoric references.

Click here to see anaphoric reference made explicit.


What is the effect of the anaphoric references? Write your answer below:


Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

You may disagree with my interpretation in places as there can be more than one referent in a given context; I have sometimes suggested more than one.

You may be wondering why I have not marked I/me/my and we/us/our (known as first person singular and plural pronouns) and you/your/yours (known as second person singular and plural pronouns); this is because they do not primarily point backwards in a text in the same way as he/him/his, she/her/hers, it/its, one/one’s and they/their/theirs (known as third person singular and plural pronouns) can do. Consider the sentence: “Well, of course, poets are not people we can understand.” We in this sentence presumably refers to people who are not poets. But people who are not poets have not already been mentioned as such, so we does not refer back to them.

Obviously it would be tedious to fill in all the anaphoric references explicitly when studying a text, but our brain performs a similar exercise when we read, or when we speak and listen. What each reader chooses to supply as the anaphoric reference for a given pronoun will vary, giving different textual interpretations. And I have not given all possible interpretations here; for example:

Oh, many kinds of sacrifice, nearly all kinds?” said Sir Percy, lifting his head. “Nearly all kinds? And you are content? More than content? And your poor mother does not like it?

The final it could refer, grammatically and semantically, to the sacrifices, or to the overall topic of her son’s being a poet, or even to her son’s being content.  However the last of these is least likely as mothers are assumed to want their children’s contentment.

Ivy Compton-Burnett uses much anaphoric reference in her writing and it can make her dialogue a little like doing a crossword-puzzle; one has to read twice to figure out the referent of the anaphora. In her novels it tends to be subservient characters who use a lot of anaphoric reference – children, servants, single women – and it serves to give them a dry kind of wit. Here, it is the character of Rachel who speaks with a sharp wit.

Teaching Point

Authors can do interesting things with anaphoric reference – Ivy Compton-Burnett used it as a vehicle for humour. You will have noticed that third-person pronouns and the pro-verb do (as in ‘I see that it does’ in the previous text, meaning, in context, ‘it does have to be sacrifice’) usually imply anaphoric reference. In speech, pronouns and the pro-verb do are very common, more common than Proper Nouns, probably because we always speak in context. We always know what we are talking about and so don’t need to repeat people’s names or the names of things, as we do when writing. Using fewer pronouns in subject position than in speech has become one of the conventions of written Standard English.