I have been reading about errors with exophoric pronoun references (the paper was mostly aimed at preparing one for a certain standardized test), and found the author saying "In the context of this test, exophoric pronouns are always incorrect." So I have two questions:

1) Just to make sure that I understand exophoric pronoun references correctly, I am wondering if something like

John went outside in the middle of the day. He found the weather to be calming and relaxing.

would be incorrect within the context of the standardized test? It looks very natural to me, but I think that's because in my native tongue such a reference is acceptable ("he" is exophoric here, am I right?)

2) How unwelcome are the exophoric references in general? Is it just this test being picky, or should I refrain from using them elsewhere?

  • 8
    My understanding of exophoric pronouns is that they refer to subjects that do not appear in the text. In other words they must be deduced by context. But John does appear in the text. So I don't think the 'he' in your second sentence is exophoric.
    – Jim
    Aug 19, 2012 at 2:16
  • It is unclear what your text is. How do we know what the 'context' of the mentioned context is? 'Incorrect' seems extreme no matter what. Also, is this in reference to a text or to speech? For 'That is a really big chair' in text, 'that' has no possible -physical- referent. Also, this may be better asked at linguistics.stackexchange.com since it is not English specific.
    – Mitch
    Aug 19, 2012 at 2:21
  • 2
    General reference. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exophora
    – MetaEd
    Aug 19, 2012 at 2:33
  • @StoneyB- actually I think 'her' is exophoric with respect to your quoted text. Probably just a typo?
    – Jim
    Aug 19, 2012 at 2:37
  • @Jim, yes, [blush], thank you. I'm going to delete it ... "John went outside in the middle of the day. It was then that he saw her." - Here, her is exophoric with respect to the quoted text because it refers to a woman not otherwise mentioned. What's not clear from your example is what texts - question? multiple-choice answer? written answer? - are considered; could you post an example from the test which the paper tells you exhibits this error? Aug 19, 2012 at 2:42

4 Answers 4


In your example, the pronoun "he" that begins the second sentence is not exophoric. It is endophoric, because its referent is manifest in the text.

"In discourse in general, the third person pronouns may be either endophoric, referring to a noun phrase within the text, . . . or exophoric, referring to someone or something manifest to the participants from the situation or from their mutual knowledge ('Here he is,' for example, on seeing someone who both sender and receiver are expecting). . . . citation.

What your test instructions admonish you to do is to forego exophoric pronouns that may seem obvious to you but are not to others.

"They say cells never die; they only divide."

In the above sentence, they could be exophoric or endophoric. If it referred to scientists who did the research and wrote the paper (and therefore are referenced in it), it is endophoric. If it is a general statement about some unnamed scientists somewhere (or the elusive "they" who are responsible for all rumored activities), which the author assumes to be obvious to the reader, then it is exophoric. Just make sure you use pronouns that refer to real persons or things in your text.

  • Thanks. It seems like the context for the referent (within this test) is defined as the sentence, and not the text as a whole. I'll make sure to double check.
    – exophora
    Aug 19, 2012 at 2:50
  • According to this, it would seem pronouns are usually classified as exophoric or anaphoric. Aug 19, 2012 at 3:06
  • If "they" refers to the set of all people who say such a thing, is it reflexophoric?
    – Random832
    Aug 19, 2012 at 5:47

An exophoric pronoun is one that lies outside the the text and relies on shared knowledge between the speaker and the reader/listener, so your 'he' is not exophoric as 'John' has been mentioned in the text. A convenient way to visualise the idea of an exophoric pronoun is that you would need to point if you were speaking ~ "Those plants look nice" while pointing at the plants.

What the author is trying to say is that exophoric pronouns in a written test are unwelcome, as the reader/examiner has no way of knowing what they refer to.

  • Many exophoric pronouns are deictic, but not all. Aug 19, 2012 at 2:58
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    Can you give an example of an exophoric pronoun that is not deictic? Aug 19, 2012 at 3:32
  • Sure: her in "John went outside in the middle of the day. It was then that he saw her." There's no reference to the context of the utterance here. Aug 19, 2012 at 12:21
  • How do you interpret 'her' without extralinguistic context? To know who 'her' is, you need to know who is speaking, or when and where they are speaking, or the speaker will need to point. It is exophoric because 'her' is outside the text, and deictic because the semantic meaning of 'her' is fixed but the denotational meaning depends on the context. Aug 19, 2012 at 13:11
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    That is quite different to my understanding, but the concept of deixis does seem to be quite varied depending on your field. As I understand it, deixis is the situation where the semantic meaning of the word, as found in a dictionary, differs to the denotative meaning, as in what it points at (deixis = point)in the physical world. 'Her' from a dictionary would be something like "3rd person feminine objective pronoun", but to know which physical female it points requires contextual information.. Aug 19, 2012 at 16:26

"John went outside in the middle of the day. He found the weather to be calming and relaxing".

In the case of the above sentence, "He" is a personal pronoun refers back to "John" so that it is Anaphoric reference.

More examples:

I went to school yesterday. Then, I met some of my friends. "I" here is a personal pronoun refers exophorically. We meaning You and I can work as Anaphoric sometimes. For example, My girlfriend and I traveled to Brisbane. We saw many things. "WE" here is anaphorically refers to "My girlfriend and I" so it is an anaphoric reference but not exophoric one.

Reading Halliday and Hasan`s theory "Cohesion in English, 1976" is going to enrich and enlighten your thought in regard to Reference.


Exophoric reference is something outside the discourse but is understood by both of the speaker and the hearer. Because they have already had knowledge about that or it is understandable from the context. Example: Donald Trump is the 45th Presisent of the United States. --> So "Donald Trump" is exophoric reference in this sentence because it wasn't mentioned earlier or later in the discourse but we still understand who is the speaker are referring to, right? :)))

--> He in your example is not exophoric reference. It is anaphoric reference because "he" refers to "John" which is mentioned earlier in the discourse. And if "John" is mentioned later, "he" will be cataphoric reference.

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