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).

Written by Keith Taylor
Keith is the founder of Eslbase. He has been an English teacher and teacher trainer for over 15 years.


  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

  10. Moses Kingsley Arthur

    Thanks very much for your explanations on the types of referencing. I’m grateful.

    *Can you please give some examples of endophoric referencing?*

    Once again, thank you.

    • Eslbase

      Hi Moses

      “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). So any of the examples above of anaphoric and cataphoric reference are also examples of endophoric reference.

      Hope that helps.

  11. Mrs Kusi

    This article has given me clarification on the topic.
    Thank you.

  12. Khajas

    Please answer my question…can an exophoric reference be an anaphoric in the same time with example please

  13. Hikari

    Hey! I’ve a question: Can an anaphora be considered as an exophora? If yes how?

    • Eslbase

      Hi Khajas and Hikari

      I don’t think this is possible.

      Anaphoric reference = referring to something earlier in the discourse
      Exophoric reference = referring to something outside the discourse

      By definition, if something appears earlier in the discourse, it isn’t outside the discourse.

  14. Mukole

    Thanks for these references, they can easily be understood

  15. Noela Nzuyu

    Thank you very much. This article has given me more clarification about the topic.

  16. Ahmad Auwal Gwangwazo

    Thanks for your writeup. I’ve absolutely learnt a lot from it. More power to your elbow.
    However, I’d really like you to provide me with copious examples of exophoric reference to dust the dirt. Though I got it, I didn’t catch it pretty much.


    Now I understand the difference between endophoric and exophoric reference. Thanks for this comprehensive analysis.

  18. Yadeta Hambissa

    Actually it is very interesting. I liked it.

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