Anaphora in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

anaphora in grammar
An anaphor is an item that commonly points backwards. Westend61/Getty Images

In English grammar, anaphora is the use of a pronoun or other linguistic unit to refer back to another word or phrase. Adjective: anaphoric. Also called anaphoric reference or backwards anaphora.

The word that gets its meaning from a preceding word or phrase is called an anaphor. The preceding word or phrase is called the antecedentreferent, or head.

Some linguists use anaphora as a generic term for both forward and backward reference.

The term forward(s) anaphora is equivalent to cataphora. Anaphora and cataphora are the two main types of endophora--that is, reference to an item within the text itself.

For the rhetorical term, see anaphora (rhetoric).


From the Greek, "carrying up or back"

Examples and Observations

In the following examples, anaphors are in italics and their antecedents are in bold.

  • "The following example illustrates what an anaphor is in the grammatical sense of the word:
    Susan plays the piano. She likes music.
    In [this] example, the word she is an anaphor and refers back to a preceding expression, in this case Susan. As can be seen in this example, an anaphor is an item that commonly points backwards...

    "The linguistic element or elements to which an anaphor refers is called an 'antecedent.' The antecedent in the preceding example is the expression Susan. The relationship between anaphor and antecedent is termed 'anaphora' . . . . 'Anaphora resolution' or 'anaphor resolution' is the process of finding the correct antecedent of an anaphor."
    (Helene Schmolz, Anaphora Resolution and Text Retrieval: A Linguistic Analysis of Hypertexts. Walter de Gruyter, 2015)
  • "If a man has talent and can't use it, he's failed."
    (Thomas Wolfe)
  • "If a man has talent and can't use it, he's failed."
    (Thomas Wolfe)
  • "No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother."
    (Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race, 1920)
  • "In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons."
  • "Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made."
    (Attributed to Otto von Bismarck)
  • "Well, knowledge is a fine thing, and mother Eve thought so; but she smarted so severely for hers, that most of her daughters have been afraid of it since."
    (Abigail Adams, letter to Mrs. Shaw, March 20, 1791)
  • Pronominal Anaphora
    "The most widespread type of anaphora is that of pronominal anaphora. . . .
    "The set of anaphoric pronouns consists of all third person personal (he, him, she, her, it, they, them), possessive (his, her, hers, its, their, theirs) and reflexive (himself, herself, itself, themselves) pronouns plus the demonstrative (this, that, these, those) and relative (who, whom, which, whose) pronouns both singular and plural... Pronouns first and second person singular and plural are usually used in a deictic manner...
    (Ruslan Mitkov, Anaphora Resolution. Routledge, 2013)
  • An Extremely Good Probe
    "In contemporary linguistics [anaphora] is commonly used to refer to a relation between two linguistic elements, wherein the interpretation of one (called an anaphor) is in some way determined by the interpretation of the other (called an antecedent). Linguistic elements that can be employed as an anaphor include gaps (or empty categories), pronouns, reflexives, names, and descriptions.
    "In recent years, anaphora has not only become a central topic of research in linguistics, it has also attracted a growing amount of attention from philosophers, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and artificial intelligence workers. . . . In the first place anaphora represents one of the most complex phenomena of natural language. . . . Secondly, anaphora has for some time been regarded as one of the few 'extremely good probes' in furthering our understanding of the nature of the human mind/brain and thus in facilitating an answer to what Chomsky considers to be the fundamental problem of linguistics, namely the logical problem of language acquisition. . . . Thirdly anaphora . . . has provided a testing ground for a number of competing hypotheses concerning the relationship between syntax, semantics, and pragmatics in linguistic theory."
    (Yan Huang, Anaphora: A Cross-Linguistic Approach. Oxford University Press, 2000)

    Pronunciation: ah-NAF-oh-rah