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Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2013. Vol.3, No.4, 305-307
Published Online December 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojml) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojml.2013.34038
Open Access 305
Pragmatic Functions of Anti-Pre-Emptive Use of Person Deixis
and Pre-Emptive Use of Social Deixis in Chinese
School of Foreign L anguages, Southwest Un iv ersity, Chongqing, C hi na
Received June 13th, 2013; revised J ul y 16th, 2013; accepted July 26th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Yu Zhang. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution
License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited.
Pre-emptive use of deixis involves speakers’ psychological tendency towards using deixis to pre-empt the
non-deictic ways of referring to the relevant person, time or place, while anti-pre-emptive use of deixis
refers to the phenomenon of non-deictic words substituting deixis. Both the pre-emptive use and anti-
pre-emptive use of deixis produce significant pragmatic functions in language communication. This paper
discusses the anti-pre-emptive use of person deixis and the pre-emptive use of social deixis in Chinese
and concludes that their pragmatic functions are of the same nature.
Keywords: Pre-Emptive Use; Anti-Pre-Emptive Use; Person Deixis; Social Deixis; Pragmatic Function
The pre-emptive use of deixis, as one of the derivational us-
ages of deixis, has been put forward by Levinson to explain
linguistic phenomena. Noting that the deictic words yesterday,
today and tomorrow pre-empt the calendrical or absolute ways
of referring to the relevant days, Levinson claims that the pre-
emptive nature of pure deictic words is probably a general ten-
dency (Levinson, 2001). He also maintains that it takes special
conventions to make it appropriate for a speaker to refer to
himself by name, and it would be strange to say Do it at 10:36
instead of Do it now, when now is 10:36 (Levinson, 2001).
Such special conventions referred by him, or constrictive fac-
tors to pre-emptive use raised by later scholars are essentially
relevant to studies upon what is called anti-pre-emptive use of
Levinson (2001), following Lyons and Fillmore, divides
deixis into five types—person deixis, time deixis, space deixis,
discourse deixis and social deixis. Analysis on the pre-emptive
use of deixis or the anti-pre-emptive use of deixis has been
fruitful. Pragmatic functions of the anti-pre-emptive use of
deixis are also accounted. However, pragmatic functions of pre-
emptive use of deixis are seldom referred to and comparison
between pragmatic functions of these two usages is even rarer.
Most of the existing researches cover a general account of the
five types of deixis in this area, while this paper intends to
concentrate on the pre-emptive use of social deixis and anti-
pre-emptive use of person deixis, and concludes that the prag-
matic functions of the former and the latter are of the same
There are diverse studies upon Chinese deixis and deixis in
general as well as their pragmatic functions in language usages.
However, they lack a systematic study upon deixis analysis.
The study specifies on person deixis and social deixis and at-
tempts to dive into the study of person deixis and social deixis
in Chinese. The comparison made on the nature of these two
deixis helps to contribute thorough understanding on this matter
and may promote to suggest a more reasonable and economical
framework to incorporate deixis.
Deixis and Its Pre-Emptive and
Deixis is directly concerned with the relationship between
the structure of a language and the context in which the lan-
guage is used. It can be defined as the phenomenon whereby
features of context of utterance are encoded by lexical and/or
grammatical means in a language (Huang, 2009). Deixis is
universal in languages and exerts great influence in everyday
As early as in 1940s, Russell has noticed the priority of
deixis over non-deictic words in natural language, and set up an
example to explain this phenomenon. He supposed he was lost
with his friend in the dark and they could not see each other, so
the friend asked: “where are you?” He would respond: “I’m
here”, instead of answering in an exact and scientific way like
“Russell is at latitude 53.16'N and longitude 4.03'W” (Liu
Hong, cited in Tang, 2010). Fillmore (1975, cited in Levinson,
2001) points out that the pre-emptive uses of deixis can elimi-
nate the ambiguity in some expressions. Afterwards, Levinson
coined the term in 1983 when he was studying the projection
nature of time deixis.
Zhang (1994) makes researches on the pre-emptive use of
deixis and puts forward another term anti-emptive usage to
refer to the phenomenon of non-deictic words substituting
deixis. Some notice that deictic words have different degrees of
priority. Others find that particular context and contextual in-
formation are decisive factors to anti-pre-emptive use for the
sake of clarity. Once participants are derived of shared back-
ground, anti-pre-emptive use of deixis is likely to appear, for
example in letters, telephones, telegram, fax, and email (Hu,
2006). Tang (2010) states that mechanism of pre-emptive use of
deixis are often accounted for in accessibility theory and the
egocentric nature of deixis, which sheds light on why deictic
words pre-empt non-deictic words.
Although context is one of the major factors causing anti-
pre-emptive uses of deixis to guard against ambiguity, the anti-
pre-emptiveness also appears when the context is unequivocal
and the use of deictic words would not result in ambiguity. In
such cases, it is the speaker’s pragmatic intention that functions
as another important factor. As the speaker attempts to get his
pragmatic intention across, the anti-pre-emptive use of deixis
shows their pragmatic functions. Researches have shown that
there are mainly three pragmatic functions in using anti-pre-
emptive uses, that is, to alter psychological distance, to convey
special emotions, and to erase ambiguity (Wei, 2008; Xu, 2007;
Gu, 2006; Zhu, 2003).
Most anti-pre-emptive uses of person deixis embody
speaker’s pragmatic intention of regulating the interpersonal
relation. Through different non-deictic addressing forms, the
speaker implicitly draws close his psychological distance with
the addressee to show closeness, love or care (Tang, 2010).
Furthermore, the anti-pre-emptive usage regulates personal
relation, not to draw each other close but keep a distance so as
to show respect, superiority or indirect reminding (Tang, 2010).
In addition, it also conveys complicated emotional overtones,
such as modesty, conceit, self-esteem, self-mockery or joking.
Pragmatic Functions of Anti-Pre-Emptive
Use of Person Deixis
Person deixis is concerned with the identification of the in-
terlocutors or participant-roles in a speech event. It is com-
monly expressed by 1) the traditional grammatical category of
person, as reflected in personal pronouns and if relevant, their
associated predicate agreements, and 2) vocatives, which can be
encoded in kinship terms, titles, and proper names, and in com-
binations of these (Huang, 2009: p. 136). Levinson (2001)
maintains that person deixis concerns the encoding of the role
participants in the speech event in which the utterance in ques-
tion is delivered, while He (1988) raises, in a similar term, that
they are expressions which necessarily refer to participant roles
in the speech event.
In general, the first person is usually used to refer to the
speaker(s); the second person is used to refer to the addressee(s).
In such communication, participants pre-empt to use person
deixis. However, there are certain circumstances where anti-
pre-emptive use of person deixis overrides. As in scientific
journals, the third person tone pre-empts for compactness, ob-
jectivity, and accuracy. When talking on a phone, pronominal
nouns pre-empt the first person deixis.
In the case of face-to-face interaction, the anti-pre-emptive
use of person deixis is more complex. To begin with, the first
type is that first person plural pronouns pre-empts second per-
son pronouns, which are often appeared in classroom commu-
nication. A teacher may say “what are we going to have the
English test?” to the students. Here “we” is used as we-exclu-
sive-of-addressee and is an anti-pre-emptive usage, to shorten
psychological distance with the students to show closeness,
love or care. The second type is first plural pronouns pre-empt
first single pronouns to show modesty and politeness. Take the
following Chinese sentence for example. “咱们是门外汉, 不
会拉那玩意儿.” Here the first plural pronoun “咱们” re- places
the first single pronoun “我”. The speaker tries to shorten their
psychological distance and also show affection. Another case in
point is “we”—usage in academic papers.
The third type is to replace the second person deixis with a
third person nouns or noun phrases. The anti-pre-emptive use
conveys complicated emotional overtones, such as irony and
reproach. For example, a wife who is busy preparing dinner in
the kitchen asks her husband “Would his highness likes some
coffee?” Another example is “somebody didn’t clean up after
himself”. It shows the speaker’s pragmatic intention of remind-
ing or reproaching.
Another type is to replace the first person deixis with sum-
mons/calls or teknonymous terms. It may serve to regulate per-
sonal relation, not to draw each other close but keep a distance
so as to show respect, superiority or indirect reminding, or
show modesty, conceit, self-esteem, self-mockery or joking.
For example, instead of saying “这是我的决定”, “这是董事长
的决定” is preferred. It is intended to show the speaker’s au-
thority, which contains a pragmatic intention of ordering others
to carry out decisions. In comparison, the reply using “老庄” to
refer to himself shows self-mockery. “老庄这件衣服挺不错的
嘛? 哪里, 三十多块钱, 老庄能穿什么好衣服?” When it
comes to the anti-pre-empting of teknonymous terms, the usage
may indicate intimacy or show affection to the addressee. In-
stead of saying “I will buy a teddy bear for my little baby”,
“dad will buy a teddy bear for my little baby” is preferred.
Pragmatic Functions of Pre-Emptive Use of
According to Levinson (2001), social deixis concerns en-
coding the social identities of participants, or the social rela-
tionship between them, or between one of them and persons
and entities referred to. Huang (2009) points out that the infor-
mation encoded in social deixis may include social class, kin
relationship, age, sex, profession, and ethnic group. Defined
thus, social deixis is particularly closely associated with person
deixis. He also suggests that there are scholars who argue that
person deixis cannot be studied independently of social deixis
There are two basic kinds of socially deictic information that
seem to be encoded in languages around the world: relational
and absolute (Levinson, 2001: p. 90). The relational social
deixis are embodied in honorifics among speaker, referent,
bystander and setting. Relational social deixis is deictic refer-
ence to a social relationship between the speaker and an ad-
dressee, bystander, or other referent in the extra-linguistic con-
text. Therefore, non-deictic nouns pre-empt person deixis in
order to show their social relationship and social status. There
are several types of pre-emptive social deixis in use.
The first type is polite nouns. It is to use, for example, “您”
in place of “你”. When a teacher says to his students, “你就听
老师的吧”, he reinforces their teacher-student relationship. In
embodying this relationship, the speaker implicitly draws close
his psychological distance with the addressee to show closeness,
love or care (Tang, 2010). The second is naming forms and
titles. Forms of names and titles are often used to indicate the
social relationship between the speaker and the hearer. The
pre-emptive use of social deixis in naming forms and titles is to
address the person in conversation by forms such as Sir John
Smith, Mr. Smith, or Prof. Smith. The pragmatic function of
Open Access 307
this addressing is to show respect and reverence to the ad-
dressee. In the same vein, the Chinese addressing such as “先
生”, “女士”, “老师” as well as “部长”, “主任”, and “处长” are
for the same function, which regulates personal relation, not to
draw each other close but keep a distance so as to show respect,
superiority. The third type of pre- emptive use of social deixis is
embodied in Chinese honorific terms and self-abasing expres-
sions (Wang, 2003), which is to show modesty, or to regulate
personal relation, not to draw each other close but keep a dis-
tance so as to show respect, superiority. The last embodiment is
in teknonymy. The pre-emptive use of social deixis is to use
teknonymous terms to replace first person pronoun like I. The
speaker intends to draw close his psychological distance with
the addressee to s h o w close n e ss, love or care (Liu, 2006).
What needs to point out that if deixis pre-empts non-deictic
nouns in social deixis, the social relationship cannot be effect-
tively shown, and thus the anti-pre-emptive use of social deixis
Anti-pre-emptive use of person deixis has been shown in
formal style, special context and face-to-face interaction. In
face-to-face interaction, first person plural pronouns pre-empt
second person pronouns. The speaker implicitly draws close his
psychological distance with them to show closeness, love or
care. Also the first plural pronouns pre-empt the first single
pronouns, showing modesty and politeness. It shortens their
psychological distance, and also shows their mutual connection.
Furthermore, the third person nouns or noun phrases pre-empt
the second person deixis, which may show authority. In addi-
tion, summons/calls or teknonymous terms pre-empt the first
person deixis. The former may show respect, superiority, or
modesty, conceit, self-esteem, self-mockery or joking, while
the latter may indicate intimacy or show affection to the ad-
In comparison, the pre-emptive use of social deixis is dem-
onstrated as follows. Polite nouns and naming forms and titles
show social relationship and social status. In embodying this
relationship, the speaker regulates personal relation, not to draw
each other close but keep a distance so as to show respect, su-
periority. Honorific terms and self-abasing expression are also
used to symbolize personal relation, similar to that of polite
nouns and naming forms and titles though they are different
kinds of honorifics. By using teknonymous terms to replace
first person pronoun like I, the speaker intends to draw close his
psychological distance with the addressee to show closeness,
love or care.
Therefore, we can conclude that pragmatic functions of
anti-pre-emptive use of person deixis and that of pre-emptive
use of social deixis are of the same nature (Liu, 2006). There
are even researches showing the necessity of cancelling the
category of social deixis on the grounds that almost all of its
linguistic facts can be fully covered under dynamic investiga-
tion of the category of person deixis and that these linguistic
facts are reflections of person deixis in interpersonal linguistic
activities (Chen, 1994).
By analyzing the anti-pre-emptive use of person deixis and
pre-emptive use of social deixis, we can not only conclude that
their pragmatic functions are the same, but also attempt to es-
tablish a more systematic framework of deixis study. Whether
to merge social deixis and person deixis under economy princi-
ple is a subject worthy of study. This paper specifically focuses
on person deixis and social deixis from the phenomena of anti-
pre-emptive use and pre-emptive use and discusses their prag-
matic functions in referring from the perspective of psycho-
logical distance and pragmatic intention. It serves as a reminder
for future study that different deixis are closely related and
pragmatic functions of deixis can also bear resemblance to each
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