What is Deixis? (Definition with examples)

When speaking or writing you are constantly using deixis, but what is deixis? Wikipedia defines deixis as “words and phrases… that cannot be fully understood without additional contextual information.” In this article I hope to explain the main kinds of deixis: person, place, time, and discourse deixis.

What is Deixis?

Deixis is a “speaker-centric notion.” That is, a speaker uses deixis and deictic elements while producing language. These deictic elements’ meaning comes from the speaker and his or her location, time of speaking the utterance, and position of the utterance in the discourse.

Deictic words’ meaning changes depending on the speaker or writer.

Person Deixis

Person deixis refers to to personal pronouns such as I, you, he, and they.  When a speaker produces the word I that pronoun refers to that specific speaker. For example, if I, Josh, produce the utterance “I went shopping yesterday,” the meaning of the word I is “Josh.” We can rephrase the sentence to “Josh went shopping yesterday” and the sentence’s meaning will remain the same. However, if you were to say the sentence “I went shopping yesterday,” the I in the sentence would refer to your name.

All personal pronouns work like this with the most obvious pronouns being I and you,

Place Deixis

Place deixis refers to where the speaker is. If I said “I am here,” the word here refers to my current location, which as I write this is in my office. Again we can replace here with what it is referring to be “I am in my office.”

Place deixis is also useful for verbs such as come and go. If I say the word come, I am referring to pointing to a direction towards my current location. This is similar to the word go,

Time Deixis

Time deixis refers to the current time in when the utterance is spoken. If we go back to the previous example of “I went shopping yesterday,” the word yesterday refers to September 11, 2019, the day before the day I am currently writing this article.

Discourse Deixis

Discourse deixis is often found in written text. For example, when reading an essay you may come across a sentence like “At this point I would like to discuss, X, Z, and Y.” The phrase at this point is an example of discourse deixis. The notion of this point can only be obtained by knowing where this point is.


Deixis is an important aspect when it comes to meaning in semantics and pragmatics. Deictic elements are often used and in order to fully understand the meaning of deictic elements, you will need to know more information than what is in the utterance alone.

What to sound more like a native English speaker?

What to read next:

If you are interested in semantics, you may be interested in reading about circularity in semantics.

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