Deictic Expression (Deixis)

deictic words and phrases

Richard Nordquist

A deictic expression or deixis is a word or phrase (such as this, that, these, those, now, then, here) that points to the time, place, or situation in which a speaker is speaking. Deixis is expressed in English by way of personal pronouns, demonstratives, adverbs, and tense. The term's etymology comes from the Greek, meaning "pointing" or "show," and it's pronounced "DIKE-tik." 

It sounds more complicated than it really is, for sure.

 For example, if you would ask a visiting exchange student, "Have you been in this country long?" the words this country and you are the deictic expressions, as they refer to the country where the conversation happens and the person being addressed in the conversation, respectively.

Types of Deictic Expressions

Deictic expressions can be one of several types, referring to who, where, and when. Author Barry Blake explained in his book "All About Language":

"Pronouns make up a system of personal deixis. All languages have a pronoun for the speaker (the first person) and one for the addressee (the second person). [Unlike English, some] languages lack a  third person singular pronoun, so the absence of a form for 'I' or 'you' is interpreted as referring to a third person....
"Words like this and that and here and there belong to a system of spatial deixis. The here/there distinction is also found in pairs of verbs such as come/go and bring/take....
"There is also temporal deixis found in words like now, then, yesterday, and tomorrow, and in phrases such as last month and next year." (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Common Frame of Reference Needed

Without a common frame of reference between the speakers, the deixis on its own would be too vague to be understood, as illustrated in this example from Edward Finegan in "Language: Its Structure and Use."

"Consider the following sentence addressed to a waiter by a restaurant customer while pointing to items on a menu: I want this dish, this dish, and this dish. To interpret this utterance, the waiter must have information about who I refers to, about the time at which the utterance is produced, and about what the three noun phrases this dish refer to." (5th ed. Thomson, 2008)

When people are together in conversation, it's easy to use deictics as a shorthand because of the common context between those present—though those present don't actually have to be in the same location at the same time, just understand the context. In the case of movies and literature, the viewer or reader has enough context to understand the deictic expressions that the characters use in their dialogue. 

Take this famous line from 1942's "Casablanca" uttered by Humphrey Bogart, playing character Rick Blaine, and note the deictic parts (in italics): "Don't you sometimes wonder if it's worth all this? I mean what you're fighting for." If you someone walks in the room and hears only this one line out of context, it's difficult to understand; background is needed for the pronouns. Those viewers who've been watching the movie from the start, though, understand that Blaine is speaking with Victor Laszlo, the leader of a resistance movement and famous Jew who escaped the Nazis—as well as Ilsa's husband, the woman Blaine is falling for in the flick. Entrenched viewers can follow along without further details because they have the context for the sentence spoken.