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What Is Cataphora?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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The linguistic term "cataphora" describes a form of sentence structure or phrasing in which a pronoun or other reference precedes the thing to which it refers. In linguistics, this expression is said to "co-refer" to the later expression. It can refer either to a single sentence or to a series of sentences. Cataphora is moderately common in English, although it is the reverse of the normal structure, which is called anaphora.

In anaphora, a pronoun or other reference comes after the noun. For instance, the sentence "as soon as Jane got home, she went to bed" is an example of anaphora. The pronoun ("she") occurs after the antecedent ("Jane"), letting the reader know that Jane is the subject of the sentence before referring to her as "she" later on. The pronoun in anaphora is referred to as an "anaphor," and this use carries over into cataphora.

By contrast, in cataphora the order of reference is reversed. Consider the sentence "as soon as she got home, Jane went to bed." In this case, the pronoun ("she") occurs before the referent ("Jane"). The pronoun thus occurs before there is any indication in the sentence as to what it might be referring to. It seems as though this sentence structure should be confusing, leaving the reader wondering who "she" is, but in fact cataphora is so common in English sentences that the reader knows to continue on to find the identity of the subject.

The sentence "as soon as she got home, Jane went to bed" is an example of strict cataphora, in that it makes use of a pronoun to refer to an antecedent. Non-strict cataphora apply the same structure, but with a noun or noun phrase as the anaphor instead of a pronoun. In the case of the sentence "after a long search, the culprit turned out to be Charlie," for instance, the anaphor is "the culprit" instead of a pronoun such as "he."

In literature, this type of sentence structure often serves to build tension. The author may wish to refer to a person or thing anonymously in order to induce the reader to keep reading. Advertising copy that reads "It's wild! It's wonderful! It's weird! It's the fourth annual Halloween Spooktacular!" or similar uses cataphora to create an agreeable sense of tension in the reader, causing them to wonder what it is that can be so wild, wonderful and weird.

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