Anaphoric, Cataphoric and Exophoric Referencing

Anaphoric, cataphoric and exophoric referencing

When we speak or write we often refer to things that were mentioned earlier, haven’t been mentioned yet, or were mentioned in another context or at another time.

What is anaphoric reference?

Anaphoric reference occurs when a word or phrase refers to something mentioned earlier in the discourse.

Here’s an example of anaphoric reference:

Michael went to the bank. He was annoyed because it was closed.

He refers to Michael.
it refers to the bank.

Anaphoric reference often makes use of the definite article the, because one of the functions of the definite article is to indicate that something has already been mentioned. Here’s another example:

He sat down at the table and took a small box from his pocket. The object felt heavy in his hands. Inside it was the key to his future.

Both the object and it refer back to a small box in the first sentence.

What is cataphoric reference?

Cataphoric reference occurs when a word or phrase refers to something mentioned later in the discourse.

Here are some examples of cataphoric reference:

Although I phone her every week, my mother still complains that I don’t keep in touch often enough.

Her refers to my mother.

The book was there on the table. I’d never read Moby Dick and I didn’t intend to do so now.

The book refers to Moby Dick.

What is exophoric reference?

Exophoric reference occurs when a word or phrase refers to something outside the discourse.

Here are some examples of exophoric reference:

They‘re late again, can you believe it?”
“I know! Well, they’d better get here soon or it‘ll get cold.”

They refers to some people outside the discourse known to both speakers.
It also refers to something that both speakers know about (perhaps the dinner).

The use of exophoric reference requires some shared knowledge between two speakers, or between writer and reader(s).


  1. Luis

    I am studing English (traductor de Inglés) and this article really helped me understand the concepts. It is very clear and the examples clarify the explanations.

    • Eslbase

      Hi Luis – thanks for your comment, I’m glad the article is useful for you!

      • Safaa Imad

        Thank you so much
        It’s really helpful
        Many other articles I have read were no use

  2. Aseelkh

    When does the Endophoric Reference occur? Is it when a word refers to something inside the discourse?

    • Eslbase

      Hi Aseelkh

      Thanks for your question. “Endophoric” reference is a more general term that includes both anaphoric and cataphoric reference. So it refers to something inside the text, either earlier (anaphoric) or later (cataphoric).

      I hope that helps.

      • Aseel Khalil

        Good Afternoon!
        Thanks for replying!
        Okay, I see. It seems obvious to me now, Thanks very much :)

  3. Aseel Khalil

    Excuse me, I have one more question about the anaphoric Reference
    I couldn’t get the point about the function of the definite article.
    Could you please explain that to me?

    • Eslbase

      The definite article is the word “the”. We often use the word “the” to refer to something that we’ve already talked about, and so this makes it a very useful word for anaphoric reference (referring to something earlier in the discourse).

      I hope this helps.

  4. Samah Bastawy

    Thanks a lot, I am studying discourse analysis, it is a branch of linguistics study. Definitely this is a very useful explanation.

  5. Justice

    Very concise. Loved it

  6. Olamide

    Found it really useful

  7. Mtshi404

    This came in very handy for an assignment I was doing. Thank you.

    • Eslbase

      Glad it was a help!

  8. Paul Brandy MUKENYI

    Your article’s really interesting for people reading linguistics.

  9. mapaseka sefate

    Thank you this really helped me

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