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Anaphoric Reference

An anaphoric reference happens when a word or phrase references something mentioned earlier in the textThis could be a thing/idea mentioned in a previous sentence, or something mentioned a while ago. 

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Anaphoric Reference

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An anaphoric reference happens when a word or phrase references something mentioned earlier in the text. This could be a thing/idea mentioned in a previous sentence, or something mentioned a while ago.

To use anaphoric reference correctly, it must be clear what the word or phrase is referring to, especially if it is referencing something much earlier in the text.

Here is an example of an anaphoric reference:

Andy wrote the letter. Later that day, he posted it.

In this example, the word 'he' is referring back to 'Andy' who is mentioned in the first sentence. By using the pronoun we avoid repetition, this is a good use of anaphoric reference. The word 'it' has also been used to replace the word 'letter'.

We sometimes use repetition for emphasis. However, to avoid unnecessary repetition, we use an anaphoric reference instead.

Anaphoric reference: meaning

What is the meaning of an anaphoric reference? Anaphora occurs when the use of an expression relies on another antecedent (previous) expression. It is an expression that can only be contextually understood by another expression in the text that happened before.

Anaphoric reference Image showing a graphic of the sentence 'Titian moved to Venice where he set up studio StudySmarterFig. 1 - Titian moved to Venice where he set up studio.

The graphic above uses the sentence 'Titian moved to Venice, where he set up studio '. In this sentence, 'he' refers back to Titian and so becomes anaphoric - we avoid repeating the name Titian and create a smoother piece of text.

An 'anaphor' is typically used deictically; This means that it is specifying something (often something spatial, an identity, or temporal location) from the writer's or speaker's perspective. It is often used to avoid repetition whenever it is clear from the context of the text who or what is being referred to.

Let's go back to our first example ...

Andy wrote the letter. Later that day, he posted it.

In these two sentences, we can see that the second sentence can only be fully understood within the context of the previous sentence. The antecedent expression ('Andy wrote the letter.') Tells us the information we need to be able to understand the context for the second sentence - and who 'he' is.

  • Anaphoric expression: the pronoun 'he' is an anaphor (it is the word that refers to something in the anaphoric reference).
  • Antecedent expression: the proper noun 'Andy' is the antecedent (it is necessary for the anaphoric reference to happen).

Example sentences of an anaphoric reference

We have now explored how anaphoric references work, and how we would use them to refer to someone in a text. But what else can anaphoric references be used for?

Anaphoric references can also be used to refer to the situation in the previous text, for example:

  • Lucy stepped on the glass. It hurt her foot.

'Lucy' is the subject. In the first sentence, we find out that she 'stepped on glass'. This gives us the context for the next sentence. 'It' is an anaphoric reference to 'the glass' in the previous sentence.

  • Bradley went to the shop. He was disappointed as it was closed.

In these sentences, there are two anaphoric references: 'he' and 'it'. 'He' refers back to 'Bradley', while 'it' refers back to 'the shop'.

Different types of anaphora

Now that we have learned about how an anaphoric reference is used in a sentence, we can learn about the two different types of anaphora. These are antecedent anaphora and complement anaphora.

Types of anaphoric referenceExplanation
Antecedent anaphoraThe use of an antecedent expression in the first part of the text which the anaphor can link back to.
Complement anaphoraThe reference to something outside of the text that can still be understood from the context.

Antecedent anaphora

This is the more commonly used anaphora, especially when thinking about anaphoric references. We have already explored how it is used, i.e. it uses an antecedent expression in the first part of the text, and then an anaphor in the anaphoric expression that links back to the first part.

Complement anaphora

Sometimes, anaphoric references are used to refer to something that isn't actually mentioned in the text but can still be understood from the context. Take a look at the example below:

Beth got the promotion at work. He wasn't good enough.

Here, the anaphor 'he' is used to refer to someone that isn't mentioned in the sentence before. It is not referring to 'Beth' (who is the subject of the first sentence) but to someone else instead. However, we can understand from the context of the first sentence that 'he' is referring to a man who hasn't received a promotion.

The first sentence complements the second by giving us enough information to figure out what the anaphoric reference is talking about.

Anaphoric reference: uses

An anaphoric reference can be used instead of repeating information. Often, they are used when using pronouns instead of proper nouns to refer to someone or something. Take a look at the example below. As you can see, the text is quite repetitive without anaphoric references.

Mary went to pick up a parcel. When Mary arrived the parcel wasn't there. The parcel had been delivered to the wrong place so Mary had to go somewhere else to get the parcel.

Now let's use some anaphoric references to talk about the subject 'Mary' and the object 'parcel'.

Mary went to pick up a parcel. When she arrived it wasn't there. It had been delivered to the wrong place so she had to go somewhere else to get it.

The first sentence 'Mary went to pick up a parcel' works as the antecedent expression for the rest of the text. Because of the context of the first sentence, we know that 'she' is talking about Mary and 'it' refers to the parcel.

Anaphoric vs. cataphoric references

Cataphoric references are the opposite of anaphoric references. Cataphoric references happen when a word or phrase makes a reference to a thing or idea mentioned later in the text. For example:

Even though I see him every day, I always forget to invite Sam over for a meal.

The wider definition of anaphora actually suggests that cataphoric reference is a type of anaphora. We have seen anaphora relies on context to be understood. To a degree, this definition works for cataphoric references. However, there is a linguistic difference between anaphora and cataphoric reference, especially when we consider the narrower definition of anaphora or anaphoric references.

In your exams, it is important to demonstrate an understanding of the difference between a cataphoric and an anaphoric reference. Try to remember that they are opposites of each other.

Anaphoric Reference - Key Takeaways

  • Anaphora is a term to describe when one expression refers to another expression in a text.
  • An anaphoric reference is a term that describes one expression referring to another expression earlier in the text.
  • The anaphoric reference uses an antecedent expression (that holds the information) and an anaphor in the anaphoric expression further on in the text.
  • Anaphoric references are useful to avoid the repetition of information within a text.
  • The more common type of anaphora is called antecedent anaphora - there is also another type of anaphora called complement anaphora.
  • Complement anaphora refers to something other than the information mentioned previously, but by using the context of the previous sentences, the reference is still clear.

Frequently Asked Questions about Anaphoric Reference

Take a look at this anaphoric reference example: Susan watched the cars. She noted down the number plate.


The first sentence works as the antecedent expression, letting us know that the subject is ‘Susan’. With this information, we can work out who the pronoun ‘she’ is referring to in the anaphoric expression.

Cataphoric reference and anaphoric reference are opposites. Anaphoric reference contains an expression that references something already mentioned, cataphoric reference contains an expression that references something yet to be mentioned.

Anaphoric reference is defined as one expression relying on the context and information of a previous expression.

Anaphoric references can be used to avoid the repetition of information.

An anaphoric reference is when a word (called an anaphor) refers back to information that has already been given, usually in a previous sentence (this is called the antecedent expression).

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

True or false: Anaphoric references are similar to cataphoric references.

True or false: Anaphora is a type of antecedent.

True or false: Cataphora is a type of anaphora.

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