Anaphoric, Cataphoric and Exophoric Referencing

Anaphoric, cataphoric and exophoric referencing
A look at anaphoric, cataphoric and exophoric referencing in English language teaching.

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).

Keith Taylor
Keith is the co-founder of Eslbase. He has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years, in Indonesia, Australia, Morocco, Spain, Italy, Poland, France and now in the UK.

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  1. 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.

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

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

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

    • 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.

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

  3. 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?

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

  5. Very concise. Loved it

  6. Found it really useful

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

    • Glad it was a help!

  8. Your article’s really interesting for people reading linguistics.

  9. Thank you this really helped me

  10. 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.

    • 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.

      • The clarity together with the simple language that you use in your responses is commendable. Your resilience and courage to reply underscores the virtues of a professional teacher. Thanks.

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

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

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

    • 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. Thanks for these references, they can easily be understood

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

  16. 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.

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

  18. Actually it is very interesting. I liked it.

  19. It is really effective and useful

  20. Very interesting article and it really helps me to understand the difference between endophoric and cataphoric references.
    Thank you so much.

  21. Really helpful !:) wish my teacher could teach in the same way btw thanks so much.


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