Definition and Examples of Referents in English Grammar

A hobbit-hole in the Waikato Region of New Zealand's North Island. Kim Petersen/Getty Images

In English grammar, a referent (REF-er-unt) is the person, thing, or idea that a word or expression denotes, stands for, or refers to. For example, the referent of the word door in the sentence "The black door is open" is a concrete object, a door—in this case, a specific black door. 

Referring words are words, such as pronouns, that point back to other items in a text (anaphoric reference) or (less commonly) point ahead to a later part of the text (cataphoric reference).

Definition and Examples

A referent can be just about anything, from concrete objects to abstractions, as the concept is not dependent on what in the text the referent turns out to be. A referent is solely something that's referred to. 

  • "A referent is a person, entity, place, concept, experience and so on in the real (or an imagined) world which is designated by a word or phrase. For example, the word cat 'refers to' a feline domestic animal, while hobbit refers to a small human-like creature with hairy feet and pointed ears (in the fictional universe of J.R.R. Tolkein). Reference is often contrasted with 'sense'—semantic relations between words (e.g., antonymy, synonymy) which are internal to language.
    "Not all linguistic elements 'refer to' objects and entities in the outside world; some refer to other parts of the text in which they occur: In this section, we summarize our findings.'"
    (Michael Pearce, "The Routledge Dictionary of English Language Studies." Routledge, 2007)
  • "In [the transitive verb pattern] (My roommate and I became good friends), the two noun phrases have the same referent: My roommate and I and good friends refer to the same people. We could, in fact, say My roommate and I are good friends, using the linking be."
    (Martha Kolln, "Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects." 3rd ed., Allyn and Bacon, 1999)
  • "[T]he referent of the word 'orange' sometimes is a particular kind of fruit, and sometimes it is the sum of all members of that class of fruit. Sometimes it is a particular kind of color, and sometimes such color as a class."
    (William L. Hoerber, "A Scientific Foundation of Philosophy," 1952)


Determiners such as articles the and a come into play with determining what's being referred to, as well as pronouns such as this and those.

"The definite article the indicates that the referent (i.e., whatever is referred to) is assumed to be known by the speaker and the person being spoken to (or addressee).

"The indefinite article a or an makes it clear that the referent is one member of a class (a book).

"Demonstrative determiners indicate that the referents are 'near to' or 'away from' the speaker's immediate context (this book, that book, etc.)."
(Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech, "Longman Student Grammar of Spoken English." Longman, 2002)

Interpreting Pronouns

Pronouns in the sentence help determine the referent, though context plays a part as well. If the context is confusing because of unclear references, it's best to recast the sentence.

"[An] aspect of processing reference concerns the interpretation of pronouns... As Just and Carpenter (1987) noted, there are a number of bases for resolving the reference of pronouns:

  • "1. One of the most straightforward is to use number or gender cues. Consider
  • Melvin, Susan, and their children left when (he, she, they) became sleepy.

"Each possible pronoun has a different referent.

  • "2. A syntactic cue to pronominal reference is that pronouns tend to refer to objects in the same grammatical role (e.g., subject versus object). Consider
  • Floyd punched Bert and then he kicked him.

"Most people would agree that the subject he refers to Floyd and the object him refers to Bert.

  • "3. There is also a strong recency effect such that the most recent candidate referent is preferred. Consider
  • Dorothea ate the pie; Ethel ate cake; later she had coffee.

"Most people would agree that she probably refers to Ethel.

  • "4. Finally, people can use their knowledge of the world to determine reference. Compare
  • Tom shouted at Bill because he spilled the coffee.
  • Tom shouted at Bill because he had a headache."

(John Robert Anderson, "Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications." Macmillan, 2004)

Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns such as who and which can also help determine what is being referred to.

"The most obvious meaning distinction in English relative clauses is between human and non-human referents. The forms who, whom, and whose are strongly associated with human or human-like entities, whereas which tends to be reserved for non-human entities."
(George Yule, "Explaining English Grammar." Oxford University Press, 2009)

"Relative pronouns have a double duty to perform: part pronoun and part conjunction. They work as pronouns in the sense that they refer to some object (person or thing) that has already been mentioned in the text, except that with relative pronouns the referent is mentioned within the same clause. They are also like conjunctions because they serve as a link between the main clause and an embedded clause by marking the introduction of the embedded clause. This is illustrated in example (15), where the relative pronoun is [in italics].

"(15) It was just a thought that crossed my mind

"The most common relative pronouns are who, that and which, but the full set includes: that, which, who, how, whose, whom, where and when."
(Lise Fontaine, "Analysing English Grammar: A Systemic Functional Introduction." Cambridge University Press, 2013)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Referents in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of Referents in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Referents in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).