Anaphora (linguistics)

In linguistics, anaphora is an instance of an expression referring to another.

In general, an anaphoric expression is represented by a pro-form or some kind of deictic.

In some theories, the strict definition of anaphora includes only references to preceding utterances. Under this definition, forward references are instead named cataphora, and both effects together are endophora. Also, the term exophora names situations where the referent does not appear in the utterances of the speaker, but instead in the real world. Some linguists prefer to define anaphora generically to include all of these referential effects.


  • The monkey took the banana and ate it. "It" is anaphoric under the strict definition (it refers to the banana).
  • Pam went home because she felt sick. "She" is anaphoric (it refers to Pam).
  • What is this? "This" can be considered exophoric (it refers to some object near the speaker or, colloquially, to a situation which is happening).

Anaphora in generative grammar

In generative grammar, the term anaphor is used to refer to English's reflexive and reciprocal pronouns, and analogous forms in other languages. Anaphors in this sense must have strictly local antecedents, because they receive their reference via the local syntactic operation (or rule of interpretation) known as binding.

Reflexive anaphors must obey binding condition A, which states that "a reflexive pronoun must be bound within the smallest category containing it, its selecting head and a subject (=its governing category, or GC). In the following sentence: *John thought that she saw himself, the GC of the reflexive 'himself' is the relative clause, since it contains the anaphor itself, its selecting head (saw) and a subject (she). The only available noun that could bind 'himself' is 'she', but this is ruled out because of the gender mismatch. The anaphor is therefore left unbound, which violates condition A - explaining the sentence's ungrammaticality.

Anaphor resolution

This means finding what the anaphor is referring to, and is often required when sentences are taken out of context.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand visited us yesterday. The visit was the first time she had come to New York since 1998.

If the second sentence is quoted by itself, it is necessary to resolve the anaphor:

The visit was the first time the Prime Minister of New Zealand had come to New York since 1998.

Although of course, as The Prime Minister of New Zealand is an office of state and she would seem to refer to the person currently occupying that office, it could quite easily be that the Prime Minister of New Zealand had visited New York since 1998 and before the present day, whilst the present incumbent she had not.

However, even when taken in context, anaphor resolution can become increasingly complex. Consider the two examples:

We gave the bananas to the monkeys because they were hungry.
We gave the bananas to the monkeys because they were ripe.

In the first sentence, "they" refers to "monkeys", whereas in the second sentence, "they" refers to "bananas". A semantic understanding that monkeys get hungry, while bananas become ripe is necessary when resolving this ambiguity. Since this type of understanding is still poorly implemented in software, automated anaphora resolution is currently an area of active research within the realm of natural language processing.

Complement Anaphora

In some special cases, an anaphor may refer not to its usual antecedent, but to its complement set. This phenomenon was first extensively studied in a series of psycholinguistic experiments , in the early 1990s.

In (1), the anaphoric pronoun 'they' refers to the children who are eating the ice-cream. Contrastingly, in (2), 'they' seems to refer to the children who are not eating ice-cream.

(1) Only a few of the children ate their ice-cream. They ate the strawberry flavour first.
(2) Only a few of the children ate their ice-cream. They threw it around the room instead.

The fact that sentences like (2) exist in the language seems at first odd: by definition, an anaphoric pronoun must refer to some noun that has already been introduced into the discourse. In complement anaphora cases, since the referent of the pronoun hasn't been formerly introduced, it's difficult to explain how something can refer to it. In the first sentence of (2), the set of ice-cream-eating-children is introduced into the discourse; but then the pronoun 'they' refers to the set of non-ice-cream-eating-children, a set which hasn't been priorly mentioned.

Several accounts of this phenomenon are found in the literature, based on both semantic and pragmatic considerations. The most important point of debate is the question, whether the pronoun in (2) refers to the complement set (i.e. only to the set of non-ice-cream-eating-children), or to the maximal set (i.e. to all the children, while discounting the minority group). The answer to this question may have theoretical concequences regarding the question of the kind of information that our brain is able to access or calculate, and also pragmatical concequences regarding the way a theory of anaphora resolution should be devised.



  • Lasnik, Howard and Uriagereka, Juan, A Course in GB Syntax. Lectures on Empty Categories, and Binding, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1988.
  • Haegeman, Liliane, Introduction to Government and Binding Theory, 2nd edition, Blackwell, Oxford, UK, 1994.

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