Cataphoric & Anaphoric Referencing

Cataphora and anaphora are means of how information is produced in both spoken and written mode. In particular, cataphora and anaphora describe how a certain piece of information is produced and subsequently referred to throughout a text or conversation.

Anaphoric Referencing:

Anaphoric referencing describes how a certain word is referred back to by another word. Generally, this means that a pronoun is being used to refer to an already stated topic or noun.

For example:

Michael had managed to annoy all of London before he had even fully moved there.

In this example sentence, you can see how he refers to Michael. The subject, Michael, is introduced first before we start to use a pronoun. He is therefore an anaphor or an anaphoric pronoun.

Nonetheless, in order to understand how anaphora works linguistically, we must also consult the limitations of practical uses of anaphora. Consider these example sentences.

You can say:

Michael enjoyed his dinner.

But you cannot say without altering the meaning drastically:

He enjoyed Michael’s dinner.

Equally, you cannot say at all:

Himself kicked Michael for losing the game.

In example 2, He cannot refer to Michael because the He is not specified to a specific person. Moreover, in example 3, Himself and Michael are part of a reflexive construction, meaning they refer to the same thing. However, as you can see, words which mean the same things in certain contexts are not interchangeable.

This is called the Binding Condition (or Binding Principle or Binding Constraint – so many names…).

This theory concentrates on the relationship between anaphoric parts of sentences that go together, explaining why certain parts of sentences can go together, but when switched around, are often not possible.

Take, for example, the sentences below. (Green indicates that the construction is easily possible to convey a meaning; red indicates that the construction is impossible without altering the meaning.)

1) Michael helped himself.
1) Michael helped him.

2) Michael asked Aaron to help him.
2) Michael asked Aaron to help himself.

3) His friends annoy Michael.
3) Michael’s friends annoy him.

In the first two sentences, it is clear that you have to use a reflexive pronoun in order to create a sentence where both Michael and himself/him refer to the same thing.

In the second two sentences, you must use the personal pronoun him in order to create a sentence where Michael and himself/him refer to the same thing.

Finally, in the third two sentences, they show how you must place the pronoun after its antecedent.

As a quick side note, an antecedent is the word/expression that gives its related pronoun/phrase meaning. The related pronoun/phrase is referred to as a proform. Therefore, in a nutshell, the antecedent gives a proform meaning; a proform gets its meaning from the antecedent.

All in all, these examples demonstrate how, whilst a reflexive or personal pronoun can relate to the same thing, they are not interchangeable and differ in how they relate to an antecedent. Moreover, the examples suggest how the order in which an anaphor can be introduced is influenced by which pronoun is used.

In the example sentences (below), it is clear that reflexive pronouns and anaphors fit and function there properly because they occur in the same domain (this is a clause*) and thus, the proforms can easily find their antecedents.

Michael thinks that Aaron should praise himself.

The colours separate the domains. Him cannot be easily read as belonging to Michael because Michael is outside of him’s domain. Thus, himself must be used instead.

Personal pronouns, however, have a syntactic distribution that differs from that of reflexive and anaphors. Personal pronouns fund their antecedent in the domain immediately outside of their own domain. For example:

Michael hopes that Aaron will praise him.

In this example, him can be easily read as relating to Michael because the personal pronoun finds its antecedent outside of its domain. This is also the reason for why we rarely read it as referring to Aaron.

*In the last example sentence, the proform is not necessarily separated by a clause, as a clause isn’t necessarily what influences the domain. Consequently, the extent to what linguists can say about a domain is that it’s “clause-like”.

We have now looked at how the type of pronoun determines how they are perceived, but what about the order?

One hypothesis is that linear order, whilst not the only factor, does indeed influence the distribution of anaphors and other pronouns.

For example (the bold suggests that the words refer to the same thing):

1) Michael’s homework annoyed him.
1) His homework annoyed Michael.

2) They spoke to Michael’s mum about him.
2) They spoke to his mum about Michael.

3) Michael said three times that he was tired.
3) That he was tired, Michael said three times.

These three examples, particularly the third ones, demonstrate how word order must indeed play a critical role in communicating the desired meaning.

However, whilst it may sometimes be critical, it’s also important to realise it isn’t always critical. This is where cataphoric referencing comes in.

Cataphoric Referencing:

Cataphoric referencing is simply the opposite to anaphoric referencing. Cataphors refer to a word not yet mentioned.

Take, for example, this sentence:

Because he tried his hardest, Michael passed his driving test.

You can see here that the pronoun (proform) he comes first and refers forward to the antecedent. Unlike in the other examples for anaphors, we can clearly read the intended meaning. So, how does this happen?

One way in which linguists explain this is through configuration or commonly c-command. C-command simply means that in language, where we often say that they have Subject – Verb – Object configurations, this is not strictly accurate. C-command says that the subject is not connected directly to the verb and object. The verb and object are part of a verb phrase. The subject, on the other hand, is set just outside of this. The general principal of c-command is that the subject can command everything that is inside of a verb phrase, whereas anything in side of the verb phrase is incapable of commanding the subject. Therefore, sentences like the second example below cannot occur:

Michael likes himself
Himself likes Michael

As you can see, in the second example, Himself is incapable of commanding the subject, Michael, as it is the object of the sentence. Beyond reflexive pronouns, c-command can also explain personal pronouns.

For example:

Once he ate his dinner, Michael was no longer hungry.
Michael was no longer hungry once he ate his dinner.

In these examples, Michael is still the c-command of the phrase he ate his dinner. He is the c-command of “ate his dinner”. You can see how this creates a hierarchy which determines when cataphoric referencing is possible.

However, other linguists have suggested another hypothesis to explain cataphoric and anaphoric referencing. This theory is simply that the distribution of pronouns is based on function. The order is as follows:


Therefore, phrases like...

Himself likes Michael

...cannot exist because they go against this order.