Definition of term deixis

Deictic expressions invite participants to work out connections. Deictic items point to entities in the situation in which the utterance is produced. As such, deixis is reliant on context, and shifts its referent accordingly. If I go into the café on the corner and say “One of those, please”, the server and I both know what I mean, but no-one outside this context (e.g. reading a report) does. The demonstrative those relies entirely on the relationship between me and what is on the counter or in the cabinet, and I facilitate the server’s interpretation by pointing or gaze direction. Others, reading a transcript of what was said, do not have access to the ‘deictic centre’, the immediate present of the person doing the speaking – which in this example is me, ordering a tub of muesli. It follows that deictic expressions shift according to who speaks: “A coffee please” from me, followed by a reply: “Is that enough?” from the server, is from the server’s perspective, reliant on the relationship between the server and the milk s/he is pouring. Enough is deictic and will shift its meaning from context to context. In this case, I will point, or say enough when enough is reached.

Deixis can be of time (then, now, when, soon, yesterday, next year), place (here, this, that, those over there, come, go) and, less frequently, quantity (enough, more, all). The time is now 08.49.59. And now, it is 08.50.01. The sun is shining here (where I am sitting) but not here (where I have moved to). Social relationships can also be expressed deictically: “Mr Jones, would you like some breakfast?” versus “John darling, are you ready for your porridge?”, express different relationships to the speaker, the deictic centre. Pronouns I and you are grounded in the point of view of the speaker: I refers to me when I say it, but to you when you say it. But that doesn’t mean that first-person and second-person pronouns are always deictic: you have to laugh or else you cry is a generic usage.

English has a grammatical class of deixis signaled by word-initial voiced TH-: this one is better than that one. These are theirs. “The best a man can get” (advertising slogan, pointing to a type of razor). These words are known as function words – that is, words with little semantic content but which perform a grammatical function (voiceless TH-initial words (think, thespian, thistle, thimble) are not function words).


The Summer Institute of Linguistics has a section on deixis .

There is a section on deixis in Jonathan Culpeper and Michael Haugh. 2014. Pragmatics and the English Language. Palgrave.

And you might enjoy Massimiliano Morini. 2011. “Point of view in first-person narratives : A Deictic Analysis of David Copperfield.” Style, 45/4, 598-618.

Demonstration of deixis in action

Here is a poem by Thom Gunn about his neighbours. See if you can spot deixis: remember, deictic expressions shift according to context and point to something outside the text.

Read the text, then click below to see deixis revealed.

In the text below, deixis is marked in blue.

‘All Do Not All Things Well’

Implies that some therefore
Do well, for its own sake,
One thing they undertake,
Because it has enthralled them.

I used to like the two
Auto freaks as I called them
Who laboured in their driveway,
Its concrete black with oil,
In the next block that year.

One, hurt in jungle war,
Had a false leg, the other
Raised a huge beard above
A huge Hell’s Angel belly.

They seemed to live on beer
And corn chips from the deli.

Always with friends, they sprawled
Beneath a ruined car
In that inert but live way
Of scrutinizing innards.
And one week they extracted
An engine to examine,
Transplant shining like tar
Fished out into the sun.

‘It’s all that I enjoy,’
Said the stiff-legged boy.
That was when the officious
Realtor had threatened them
For brashly operating
A business on the street
– An outsider, that woman
Who wanted them evicted,
Wanted the neighbourhood neat
To sell it.  That was when
The boy from Viet Nam told me
That he’d firebomb her car.
He didn’t of course, she won.

I am sorry that they went.
Quick with a friendly greeting,
They were gentle joky men
– Certainly not ambitious,
Perhaps not intelligent
Unless about a car,
Their work one thing they knew
They could for certain do
With a disinterest
And passionate expertise
To which they gave their best
Desires and energies.
Such oily-handed zest
By-passed the self like love.
I thought that they were good
For any neighbourhood.

Hide explicit deictic words.

Click here to see deixis in the above text revealed.


In the first stanza, I have not highlighted some, because it appears to refer anaphorically back to the all of the title (presumably with the head noun people elided).

There are several demonstratives in the poem:

In the next block that year

(The poet’s thoughts point to the block next to where he is, and to a specific year)

In that inert but live way

(This is known as empathetic deixis, the inert but live way being an abstract concept, conveying the poet’s view of the auto freaks’ manner. It seems to be suggesting shared knowledge, but also distances (pointing to ‘that way’ rather than ‘this way’), which is a characteristic of deixis)

That was when the officious / Realtor had threatened them

(The poet’s thoughts point to ‘that time’)

-An outsider, that woman / Who wanted them evicted

(The poet’s thoughts point to that womanthis woman would work equally well semantically, meaning ‘this woman whom I’m now discussing’, but that woman keeps her at a distance. Deictic terms can be proximal (near to the speaker) or distal (distant from the speaker); that woman is distal)

That was when / The boy from Viet Nam told me / That he’d firebomb her car.

(The poet’s thoughts point to ‘that time’)

In order to understand why the auto freaks are mending cars in a front yard (rather than at a proper garage) and why the realtor wants them gone, you need to know about veterans of the Vietnam War (having trouble finding employment) and Hell’s Angels (looking intimidating). The poem is about people’s judgement of appearances. Via the poet, the deictic expressions link the auto freaks to the neighbourhood over time, so as to make the auto freaks intrinsic to the neighbourhood. The poet knows that the men are kind and gentle as he has observed them interacting over a period of several years. However, to the realtor, who does not know them, the men and their yard look filthy, intimidating, and smack of poverty. To her, appearances matter – she needs the place to look respectable in order to sell homes there. To the poet, personal comportment and personal relationships are more important, and hence the distancing deixis.

Literary Exercise

Identify the deictic words in this poem, and consider their effect. Read the poem, then click below to see the deictic words made explicit.

In the text below, deixis is marked in blue.

Arrival at Santos

Here is a coast; here is a harbour;
here, after a meagre diet of horizon, is some scenery:
impractically shaped and – who knows? – self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,

with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,
some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue,
and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you

and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately,
after eighteen days of suspension?

Finish your breakfast. The tender is coming,
a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange and brilliant rag.
So that’s the flag. I never saw it before.
I somehow never thought of there being a flag,

but of course there was, all along. And coins, I presume,
and paper money; they remain to be seen.
And gingerly now we climb down the ladder backward,
myself and a fellow passenger named Miss Breen,

descending into the midst of twenty-six freighters
waiting to be loaded with green coffee beans.
Please, boy, do be more careful with that boat hook!
Watch out! Oh! It has caught Miss Breen’s

skirt! There! Miss Breen is about seventy,
a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall,
with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression.
Her home, when she is at home, is Glens Fall

s, New York. There. We are settled.
The customs officials will speak English, we hope,
and leave us our bourbon and cigarettes.
Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap,

but they seldom seem to care what impression they make,
or, like this, only attempt, since it does not matter,
the unassertive colours of soap, or postage stamps –
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter

do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once;
we are driving to the interior.

Hide explicit deictic words.

Click here to see the deictic words in the above poem made explicit

What is the effect of the the deictic words in the above poem? Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


In the second stanza, “And warehouses, / some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue”, the quantifier some points to a subset of the warehouses which the poet is observing. She is the deictic centre, singling out specific focal points for comment. Oh, tourist, is deictic if it directly addresses the poet’s companions, as is after eighteen days in the third stanza, if in reference to the specific eighteen days preceding the present, where the speaker is now; that is, the eighteen days spent sailing from home to Santos.

In the fourth stanza, coming indicates motion towards the speaker’s deictic centre. “So that’s the flag” points to the flag of the country the poet is about to enter, which she has just observed and identified. I have not marked all along in “I somehow never thought of there being a flag, / but of course there was, all along”, as deictic, because the time-span refers anaphorically back (however vaguely) rather than extralinguistically. What about Finish your breakfast? Is this spoken by the poet to a companion, or by the ship’s crew to the poet?

In the fifth stanza, the poet’s reference to Miss Breen as a fellow passenger (“myself and a fellow passenger named Miss Breen”) aligns Miss Breen with herself; the poet is the deictic centre and Miss Breen is her fellow, included in the first-person plural pronoun of the eighth stanza (“There. We are settled.”). However the tokens of we in the last stanza (“when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat,”, “We leave Santos at once; / we are driving to the interior “) point to all the people who (potentially) wrote letters on the boat, and any other disembarking tourists. The interior is deictic as from the point of view of Santos, it presumably refers to somewhere inland of São Paolo, but will shift its meaning each time the cruise-ship berths.

In the sixth stanza, the poet addresses one of the crew as boy. Boy indicates the poet’s view of her social relationship to the referent, that is, as her social inferior, and either younger, or not younger but black. The crew (in her perception) are hired to serve the tourists.

There is much proximal deixis in this poem – the word here occurs four times, the pronoun I/myself four times, and the pronoun we/us/our nine times. The tokens of there are not distal; that is, they are not opposed to here. “I somehow never thought of there being a flag, / but of course there was, all along” has two tokens of there, but neither are deictic. They are both existential there, also known as dummy there. I have marked the token of there in “Watch out! Oh! It has caught Miss Breen’s / skirt! There!” as deictic as I interpret it to mean that the boathook has ripped her skirt there, in that particular place, or there, just as the poet predicted it would. I have marked the token of there in “There. We are settled” as deictic because it is an exclamation of completion, in this case, having negotiated the tricky transfer from ship to tender. There are two demonstratives: “that’s the flag” and “that boat hook”, both of which entities are proximal to the poet.

The poem is about the moment of disembarking at the port of Santos after an eighteen-day cruise at sea. Although Santos is not meant to be the focus of attention – the focus of attention is to be the interior – nevertheless the present moment in Santos astounds the poet in various ways, from the frivolous greenery to the bleached buildings to the flag to the precarious descent down the ladder, and provokes her to feel insecure about all the things she does not know – the currency, the customs officials, their language, her allowance of alcohol and cigarettes, the glue on the postage stamps. Far from being a mere gateway to ‘the interior’, Santos presents the poet with novel challenges of its own. The deixis of proximity serves to convey the immediacy of all these strange and new unknowns, and the poet’s resultant discomfiture and resolute resolve to meet them.

Teaching Point

Deixis is a useful concept for thinking about relationships; both relationships within the text, and authors’ and readers’ relationships to the text. Distal and proximal deixis in particular can be helpful concepts for literary analysis.