Analysing Iago’s weasel words using rhetoric and pragmatics (research digest)


Reading time: 7 minutes


• Summary of the paper
• Keller on Iago’s weasel words
• Using this in teaching and learning
• Reading suggestions

Summary of the paper

Stefan Keller combines ancient rhetoric and three contemporary linguistic theories – speech act theory, relevance theory and politeness theory – to explore Iago’s language in act 3, scene 3 of Othello. These linguistic theories have been introduced in some of our previous blog entries. Links to these posts can be found at the end of this section. Keller illustrates how these theories can be used alongside an understanding of classical rhetoric to analyse the language of Shakespeare and to gain insight into his characters, their communication styles and their relationships.

Keller on Iago’s weasel words

The sophistication and breadth of Shakespeare’s use of rhetorical figures suggests, according to Keller and others, that Shakespeare was among several Renaissance writers who were well-versed in these classical models (handbooks of which, such as Henry Peacham’s The Garden of Eloquence (1593), were very popular at the time). As Keller notes, classical rhetoric focusses on techniques available to monologic oration. Pragmatic models of communication, though, can also accommodate conversational dialogue, and pay attention to the communicative context. Pragmatic models are therefore in some ways more appropriate for analysis of drama, and provide a useful addition to classical rhetoric in the study of Shakespearian dialogue. This is particularly the case for Othello, where Iago’s disturbing manipulation of Othello, through conversation alone, is at the heart of the play.

As Keller writes, the ‘challenge for Iago is to achieve his appalling goal while appearing to be helpful and unobtrusive’ (405). His success relies on his ability to guide Othello to infer meaning from what he says (and doesn’t say), while the surface meaning of his speech allows for plausible deniability. Keller cites Grice’s co-operative principle (within speech act theory): “Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” (Grice 1989: 13) Speakers can (and very often do) purposefully and meaningfully violate this principle, by being obscure or by overtly exaggerating, for example, to invite inference. Inference essentially works through the hearer

a) noticing that the what the speaker has said isn’t as clear, informative, honest or relevant as one might expect (in accordance with the co-operative principle);

b) assuming that the speaker is therefore trying to communicate something more through this obfuscation; and

c) trying to work out (led by what the speaker has said) what else the speaker might be trying to suggest.

Often inference works through the hearer trying to make sense of how the speaker’s words are relevant to the topic of conversation.

Keller draws out some illustrative examples of Iago’s style of conversational manipulation, and analyses them in relation to classical rhetoric, the co-operative principle, and ideas from relevance theory and politeness theory. He gives an example of Iago’s self-interruption (the rhetorical figure of aposiopesis) in which Iago overtly denies the import and relevance of what he has said, refusing to directly answer Othello, leaving Othello to wonder about and try to infer why Iago is being obscure.

IAGO:           Ha, I like not that.
OTHELLO:  What dost thou say?
IAGO:           Nothing, my lord; or if – I know not what. (3.3.34-6)

Othello continues, ‘Was that not Cassio parted from my wife?’, to which Iago responds:
Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guilty-like
Seeing you coming. (3.3.38-40)

Both of Iago’s responses here also involve paralipsis, which Keller defines as ‘pretending to pass over a matter in order to give it more emphasis’ (403). Iago could simply have replied ‘Yes’ or ‘I think so’ to Othello’s second question here. Instead, Othello is directed by the length of Iago’s reply to infer that Iago feels this extra detail is important. Significantly, ‘I cannot think it’ is not ‘I do not think it’, which allows for the inference (among other possible inferences) that maybe he does think this, but something stops him from wanting to. Iago also adds a description of the manner of Cassio’s supposed departure, ‘steal[ing] away’ (neatly evoking associations of theft), ‘guilty-like’ on (and therefore implicitly in reaction to) ‘seeing [Othello] coming’. As Keller says, ‘by denying the relevance of Cassio’s behaviour, Iago makes it all the more relevant for Othello’, that is, by implying that it would make no sense for Cassio to behave that way, Iago leads Othello to consider why Cassio might behave that way – to infer the contextual relevance of such behaviour (403).
Iago begins his second response here by partly echoing Othello’s words (‘Cassio, my lord?’). This rhetorical figure is called anadiplosis, and it occurs twice as often in Othello as it does in Hamlet, and three times as often as it does in King Lear (Keller, 404, n.). Keller cites the following exchange:

OTHELLO:   Is he [Cassio] not honest?
IAGO:            Honest, my lord?
OTHELLO:   Honest? Ay, honest.
IAGO:            My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO:   What does though think?
IAGO:            Think, my lord?
OTHELLO:   Think, my lord! By heaven, though echo’st me
As if there were some monster in my thought
Too hideous to be shown. (3.3.103-11)

On the surface, direct repetition does not add meaning, but only repeats it. The meaningfulness of repetition therefore lies in what can be inferred from the act of repetition itself within the context of the conversation. The exclamation at the end of Othello’s repetition of ‘Think, my lord!’ leading into his direct comments on Iago’s echoing, serves to signal his frustration, for example. Iago’s responses here, though, are more controlled: they could be an act of double-checking he has heard Othello correctly, but this in itself suggests Iago does not believe or understand what he is hearing, hence the need to check. Othello picks up on this implied incredulity, and the sub-textual suggestion, in turn, that his own thinking is too deviant to be easily understood or shared.

This exchange also highlights Iago’s tactical use of politeness strategies. Keller notes that this scene involves ‘the highest frequency of “my lord” vocatives from Iago in the play’ (406). These vocatives serve as ‘on record’ (overt) ‘positive politeness’, affirming that the addressee is liked, and that his or her wants are shared and supported, etc. Iago also often uses ‘negative politeness’, apologising and making excuses for possibly causing offence (through lines such as ‘my lord, pardon me’, 3.3.13, and ‘I do beseech you … [to ] take no notice’, 3.3.147-53). He also suggests potentially offensive things only indirectly, or ‘off record’ – that is, ‘in such a way that it is not possible to attribute only one clear communicative intention’ to the utterance (Brown and Levinson, 1994: 70). Keller describes Iago’s strategy here as ‘suggestive obscurity’ (Keller, 407).
As in the previous extract, Othello increasingly names and makes explicit what he perceives to be Iago’s implicit suggestions. He even states

Exchange me for a goat
When I shall turn the business of my soul
To such exsufflicate and blown surmises,
Matching thy inference. (3.3.183-6)

It would appear, in moments such as these, that Iago has failed in in his attempts to stay on the side of subtle suggestion and have Othello feel responsible for his own inferences. These moments are fleeting, however, as suggested by Othello’s subsequent plea that Iago speaks ‘With franker spirit’ (3.3.198). Iago’s deniability remains just plausible enough for Othello to be torn between self-loathing and suspicion.

Keller’s article usefully illustrates how some contemporary linguistic theories can take textual study beyond labelling rhetorical figures to analysing how the utterances these figures actually function to create the play’s powerful effects.

Brown, Penelope, and Stephen C. Levinson. Politeness. Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Grice, Paul, Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

This is a research digest of the following article: Keller, Stefan D., ‘Combining Rhetoric and Pragmatics to Read Othello’, English Studies, 91.4 (2010): 398–411.

Using this in teaching and learning

The ideas below suggest how you can use this research digest to support your teaching of Othello on AQA’s A-level English Language and Literature specification. You could also adapt the ideas to any of the other plays studied on Dramatic Encounters and to supporting students preparing for NEA (Making Connections).

1. As a starting point in exploring inference and politeness in Othello, students can

a) look at one exchange where a response is not directly relevant to the preceding utterance, and list the possible inferences that are available, thinking about how it could be relevant to the conversational context. These inferences can then be put in order from ‘strong’ (most plausible inference) to ‘weak’ (least plausible inference), and the students can discuss and justify their ordering. This activity will help students to better understand the process of inferencing and different degrees of inference.

b) look at one instance of politeness in the play, and discuss what aspect of the hearer’s personality or position is being overtly or covertly appealed to or protected. This will help students understand how characters use language to relate to each other, and to position themselves and each other in relationships.

2. Keller points out that ‘strictly speaking, “off-record” utterances are impossible in drama, as the audience is always fully aware of Iago’s intentions’ (406). Students can explore the added complexity of conversational implicature and inference in the context of drama, where there is a double layer of communication (character to character, and playwright to audience), and at least two communicative contexts – here one in which Othello knows certain information, and one in which the audience knows far more. These different communicative contexts guide inference differently for different hearers. Students can visually map out these layers/contexts of communication. They can then go further to explore the relationships between inference and ‘dramatic irony’ in this play and others. This will help students understand how meaning is communicated in drama.

3. Othello himself, in shining the spotlight on the subtext, is shown in this scene (and elsewhere) to speak frankly, in marked contrast to Iago. Keller begins and ends his study of this play with attention to the plain speaking of Desdemona and Emilia, which is similarly cast as all the more admirable in contrast to Iago’s sophistry. Desdemona and Emilia do speak with rhetorical skill (employing a range of classical figures), but, Keller implies, with none of the insidious and off record strategies of Iago. This is not to say that their communication does not involve and invite inference (as most communication does), but that their explicit and implicit communication is working in a different balance, and to different ends. In this light, the communication styles of Desdemona and Emilia could offer a route into the gender politics of the play. Students can investigate literary criticism which discusses the play’s gender politics, including feminist readings, and can explore how far and in what ways the communication styles of Desdemona and Emilia can account for these readings.

Reading suggestions

Some of the related blog entries listed at the top of this research digest provide suggestions for reading on these pragmatic theories (relevance theory, politeness theory and speech act theory).

  • A research digest on ‘Implicature and literary texts’, summarising an article by Adrian Pilkington on ‘Poetic Effects’ from Lingua1 (1992): 29-51 (posted on 28/09/2016)
  • A research digest on ‘Impoliteness and entertainment’, summarising an article by Jonathan Culpeper, ‘Impoliteness and entertainment in the television quiz show: The Weakest Link’ from Journal of Politeness Research 1 (2005): 35-72 (posted on 06/04/2016)
  • Classroom activities on ‘Understanding implicatures’ (posted on 17/11/2016)
  • Reading suggestions on ‘Politeness and impoliteness’ (posted on 17/06/2016)

Keller points readers towards other works specifically on politeness theory and Othello:

  • Brown, Roger, and Albert Gilman. ‘Politeness Theory and Shakespeare’s Four Major Tragedies.’ Language in Society 18 (1989): 159–212
  • Busse, Ulrich. Linguistic Variation in the Shakespeare Corpus. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2002
  • Kopytko, Roman. ‘Linguistic Politeness Strategies in Shakespeare’s Plays.’ In Historical Pragmatics, edited by A. H. Jucker. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995
  • Magnusson, Lynne. Shakespeare and Social Dialogue. Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999

For work using speech act theory and the co-operative principle to explore Shakespeare’s work, see

  • Fish, Stanley. ‘How to do Things with Austin and Searle: Speech Act Theory and Literary Criticism.’ Modern Language Notes 91 (1976): 983–1025
  • Gilbert, Anthony. ‘Techniques of Persuasion in Julius Caesar and Othello.’ Neophilologus 81 (1997): 309–23

What makes a narrator ‘reliable’? (Research digest)


Reading time: 5 minutes

Reliable and unreliable narration have been widely debated within literary scholarship over the last half century. However, as Terence Murphy notes, significantly more attention has been paid to trying to figure out how an impression of narratorial unreliability is constructed than has been paid to working out how and why a narrator might be believed to be reliable. Murphy also refers to Wayne Booth’s seminal book The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) which contains Booth’s discussion of narratorial reliability and unreliability.  Here, Booth suggests that Nick Carraway, the first-person narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1922), is a good example of a reliable narrator. On this basis, Murphy offers a brief discussion of the key critical debates around the concepts of reliability and unreliability, and also of the relative scope for perceived un/reliability of first-person narration in contrast to third-person narration, which is usually considered more distant and objective. Picking up the example of Nick Carraway, Murphy then suggests that there are five ‘determinants’ of reliable narration in first-person fiction, and argues that unreliability is created through departure from or absence of those determinants. He presents these five determinants as a model which can be used as a critical tool to discuss the relative reliability of any first-person narrator.

Murphy’s five determinants of reliability

1) Narration from a place of security, at the place where the narrator was born or has settled. Murphy points out that Carraway narrates from “back home” (Fitzgerald 1990 [1922]: 167), which, Murphy suggests, is testament to Nick’s maturity and freedom.

2) Use of the ‘middle’ style of standard English (as according to classical rhetoric), neither colloquial and marked by representation of accent and dialect, nor poetic, ornate, sophisticated and opaque. Nick’s language is of this ‘middle’ style.

3) Observer-narrator status. Nick Carraway is an example of a narrator who is not the main character in the story, but instead tells the story of that main character. Nick’s own role in the plot is limited.

4) Ethical maturity and a conventional moral stance. Nick Carraway has been through the trials of the First World War, which has tested and developed his moral beliefs, and which earns him respect.

5) Retrospective re-evaluation or re-interpretation of another character. Murphy contrasts plot structures which centre upon a hero’s journey, or upon a new self-realisation on the part of the first-person narrator, with plot structures which centre upon the observer-narrator’s re-evaluation of another character. In The Great Gatsby, Murphy argues, the climax of the plot is Nick’s re-interpretation and new understanding of Gatsby, which replaces Nick’s prior impressions.

Murphy’s discussion of each of the five determinants exposes some complexities and caveats within the model. Problems include issues arising in the case of the narrator who is reliably conveying his or her perspective, but whose perspective is naïve, or whose stance is psychologically or morally deviant. At the heart of these issues is the broader problem of the relativity and subjectivity of perspectives on events, and the relationship between notions of perceived reliability and the possibility of a single ‘truth’, or ‘true’ rendering of events. Murphy presents his own views on these issues, and coins some terms to help him handle them (such as ‘standpoint limitation’, related to multiple narrators). The model, and the critical complexities with which it engages, offer a useful springboard for exploration of narratorial un/reliability.

This is a digest of the following article: Murphy, T. P. (2012) ‘Defining the reliable narrator: The marked status of first-person fiction’, Journal of Literary Semantics 41, 67-87.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways. 

  1. Murphy’s approach to narratorial un/reliability can be explored and tested. Here is one set of activities through which a class can explore his ideas.
  • Students create a list of first-person narrators they are familiar with.
  • Students then rank those narrators according to how reliable they feel each to be.
  • Next, students rank them according to how many of Murphy’s determinants are present or departed from in each case.
  • Finally, students compare the two ranked lists to explore correlations and differences, and reflect on whether the relationship between the two lists of rankings supports or undermines Murphy’s claims.

2. An alternative method of exploring Murphy’s model would be to creatively recast the narration (AS level ‘Remembered places’, A-level ‘Writing about society’).

  • Students take the example of the narrator at the top of the second ranking created in activity 1 – that is, the narrator which most closely follows Murphy’s list of determinants – and identify a passage in a text where the most determinants are present.
  • Students then creatively rewrite that instance of narration in one of two ways:

i) Half of the students take care to systematically depart from each of Murphy’s determinants, to aim to create the impression of an unreliable narrator.

ii) The other half of the students rewrite the narration with the same aim – to create the impression of unreliable narration – but without attending to following or departing from Murphy’s determinants at all. Rather, they can follow their intuitions, and experiment with other possible strategies for creating an impression of unreliability (for example, flouting Grice’s maxim of quantity).

  • The students then compare their recast versions, discuss the stylistic choices they made in changing the narration from reliable to unreliable, reflect on how far they achieved their goal of creating an impression of narratorial unreliability, and consider what strategies or ‘determinants’ were most significant or successful in achieving that impression.
  1. Novels can have multiple narrators, as in the case of the frame narratives in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In such cases, two or more different characters might offer their perspective on the same event. Even in fiction with one single narrator, and also in drama with no narrating character, there are often multiple ‘tellers’: characters other than a narrator figure who relay to other characters short narrative reports of particular events. Two characters might narrate the same event at different times to different audiences, or might (collaboratively or competitively) co-narrate an event (AS level’Views and voices’, A-level ‘Telling stories’).

Students can explore instances of an event ‘told’ by multiple tellers, and can:

  • compare the relative impressions of reliability conveyed in each telling, and
  • reflect on the impact upon their interpretation (of the characters and the event) of the author’s choice to provide two tellings, and the choice of presenting them in the particular order given.


Recasting Remembered Places (classroom activity)


Reading time: 5 minutes


This teaching plan predominantly targets AS Paper 2, question 2, which requires students to recast a text from the Paris anthology. The assessment objective in focus is AO5: demonstrate expertise and creativity in the use of English to communicate in different ways. The technique of recasting is an element of the ‘Writing about Society’ component of the A-level specification, and so this teaching plan can usefully guide A-level students through the processes involved. Some of the activities described below also incorporate other assessment objectives and so support learning more broadly.


The following sequence of activities centres around an investigation of the ways in which multimodal texts communicate meaning. While the scrapbook will not be a form that students are asked to recreate in an exam (given its physicality), it is a useful means of exploring how words and images create meaning. As multimodality is a feature of many of the texts in the anthology, and could also from part of an investigation within students’ NEA work, these activities are designed to support understanding of multimodality in general.

  1. Exploring multimodal meaning in scrapbooks

i) Set up discussion activity: Explore the scrapbook as a form of discourse. A physical example would be ideal, but pictures of scrapbooks can be found on the web (eg using google images). As a class, collaboratively create a list of the kinds of images, objects and text that can be included in a scrapbook.

Other points for discussion could include:

  • the physicality of the form (related to AO3)
  • the decrease in popularity of the scrapbook in the wake of the growth of digital media and the latter’s different affordances for capturing memories (related to AO3)
  • the potentially ‘retro’ style and status of a contemporary scrapbook, how that ‘retro’ quality relates to context and what it contributes to the scrapbook’s meaning

ii) Homework creative activity: Over a weekend, students individually create two pages of a scrapbook representative of their experiences on one or both of the two days.

iii) Comparative activity: Students pair up, share and compare their scrapbook pages, answering the following questions relating to modes:

a) What kind of objects were used and what do they represent? (eg tickets, price labels, scraps of magazines, fabric, wrappers, printed recipes, leaves, etc)

b) What images were used, what do they represent and, if relevant, how realistic or stylised are they? (eg photos, drawn pictures, finger prints, arrows, borders, etc)

c) What text was created and how does it relate to the images or objects and to the overarching narrative of the discourse? (eg framing, connecting, explaining, providing descriptive or narrative detail, etc)

Students pair up and compare their scrapbook pages with respect to the following questions relating to genre and the ways in which narrative has been constructed:

d) How far is a narrative structure apparent in the pages? How is any narrative sequence conveyed (eg through layout, arrows, connecting adverbs, etc)?

e) In what ways are the elements of the scrapbook pages ‘tellable’ ?(‘Tellability’ relates to the qualities of a story which make it worth telling to an audience, eg its relative humour, relevance to the audience, entertainment value, suspense, surprise, irony, interest, etc.)

f) What kind of tone, if any, is apparent in the scrapbook? Are there any humorous, reflective, suspenseful or dark patches? Do the scrapbook pages function as a diary, a descriptive documentary, an adventure story, a comedy, etc?

iv) Re-creative activity: If the group dynamic allows for it, students could, in small groups, cut up and recombine elements of their individual scrapbooks to create a single, coherent, fictional few pages of an idealised day or event, or of a day or event communicated in a fashion representative of a particular genre. This activity replicates the recreative task at AS level (‘Remembered Places’ question 2, AO5.)

Each group then prepares to explain the choices they made in selecting and arranging the parts of their group scrapbook pages and share their pages with the rest of the class. This activity replicates the commentary on recreative writing task at AS level (‘Remembered Places’ question 3, AO2 and AO3).

  1. Re-casting verbal texts as multimodal texts

This activity builds on the prior creative work, applying the ideas and concepts involved to texts from the Paris anthology.

i) Re-casting activity: In pairs, students choose one of the following 9 texts from the Paris anthology.

  • Mike and Sophia, ‘Visiting Paris’
  • Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe (extract)
  • Eurostar advert ‘Stories are Waiting in Paris’
  • Personal Narrative: Anna
  • Rick Steves, ‘Rick Steves’ Walking Tour of the Louvre Museum’
  • Isabella, ‘La Parc Monceau’, from ‘Memories of places in Paris’ by Isabella and Sophia
  • Wild Night Music of Paris, The Toronto Star Weekly, 25th March 1922
  • Peter Lennon, Foreign Correspondent: Paris in Sixties (extract)
  • Helen Maria Williams, Letter II of IV, from Letters from France 1790-1796 (extract from Travel Writing 1700-1830: An Anthology).

a) In their pairs, students re-read what is narrated and described in their chosen text, and collaboratively write a short summary.

b) Individually, students recast their chosen text (or a part of it) in the form of a few pages from a scrapbook (including drawing the objects they would include). This activity replicates the recreative task at AS level (‘Remembered Places’ question 2, AO5.)

ii) Reflective commentary activity:

a) In their pairs again, students compare their recast versions, and explain to each other what decisions they made in the recasting process. While not requiring a structured, written commentary, this activity prepares students for the commentary on recreative writing task at AS level (‘Remembered Places’ question 3, AO2 and AO3).

b) Having explained the choices they made, students can then reflect on what the nature of the recasting process and the decisions they had to make reveals about the nature of the base text, eg the relative tellability of elements of the base text, the point of view involved, the availability of images associated with the verbal content, the structural ordering and relationships between parts, etc.

c) Through whole class discussion, students can be guided to reflect on how images and words signify meaning differently, and how the two can interrelate to function communicatively together. This supports the study of multimodality and genre more generally in the anthology.

More material on recasting texts and on the related concepts and terms referred to in this teaching plan can be found in the English Language and Literature A/AS Level for AQA Student Book (Cambridge: University Press, 2015) and in Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Studies by Rob Pope (Routledge, 1995).

Online Resources (reading suggestions)


Reading time: 2 minutes

‘Ling 131 – Language and Style’

This website offers a free, step-by-step introduction to stylistics. The short course was designed for undergraduate students at Lancaster University, and was then made an open resource. It is divided into thirteen topics, grouped into the three genres of poetry, prose and drama. Each topic is divided into one or two sessions, and each of these sessions is broken down into bite-sized explanations of key concepts, including literary and non-literary examples, embedded videos, tasks and suggested further reading. There is a full glossary to turn to if needed, and a set of self-assessment questions for each genre to enable students to check their understanding. The website is an invaluable resource for teachers and A-level students wanting to learn the fundamentals of stylistics. This online course is based on a really useful textbook, Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (Longman, 1996) written by Mick Short.


‘The Living Handbook of Narratology’

This website is an open-access wiki created and edited by an international team of highly esteemed narratologists. Over thirty articles define and explain key concepts in the study of narrative, covering topics such as character, the implied reader, plot, gender, perspective and autobiography. The entries vary in length and complexity. Most include an overview of different views on particular concepts and provide references to key theoretical texts. Although pitched at an advanced level, teachers will find this a rich resource offering them detailed guidance on concepts and terms central to the study of narrative.


‘Grammar and Composition’ at

Richard Nordquist is the author of this vast section of the ‘’ website. His friendly, often funny guide presents clear and concise explanations of grammatical terminology (and some literary terms too), using illustrative examples and hyperlinking related terms. This guide also includes an array of excellent tips on essay writing, working up from explaining the basics of how to structure sentences and use punctuation correctly to offering advice on different styles and rhetorical techniques.  Scroll down and view the left hand side of the page to find the contents overview. The ‘Blog’ also contains lots of brief and engaging articles on some curiosities of the English language – perfect for inspiring budding linguists.

Me, myself and I: the language of egocentric points of view (research digest)


Reading time: 7 minutes

One aspect of the language of point of view is what is known as deixis. Deictic words ‘point’ to entities, places or moments in time, but, notably, in doing so signal the subjective position of the speaker in that instance of pointing. Words like ‘I’, ‘here’ and ‘now’ are deictic. The special characteristic of deictic words is that in order to understand which person, thing, place or time the words are referring to, you need to know the context in which the words were used – who by, where, when, etc. For example, if you opened a charity fundraising letter which began with “As I stand here looking at this family now”, the words ‘here’, ‘now’ and ‘I’ are only meaningful and interpretable if you know who the speaker is, where their ‘here’ is, and the date/time at which they spoke. ‘This’ suggests a referent near (or ‘proximal’) to their ‘here’ (as opposed to ‘that’, which suggests distance). This contextual information – the spatiotemporal co-ordinates of the subjective position of the speaker – is known as the deictic centre. Deictic words communicate the person, thing, place or time they are referring to in relation to that subjective deictic centre, and so signal that subjective centre as much as they signal the person or thing etc. that they are referring to. There are three main categories of deixis:

  • Person deixis, e.g. personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘we’, etc.; demonstrative pronouns ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘that’, etc.
  • Spatial deixis, e.g. locative expressions ‘here’, ‘there’, ‘nearby’, etc. and verbs suggesting direction towards or away from the speaker (‘come’ and ‘go’).
  • Temporal deixis, e.g. temporal adverbs ‘now’, ‘then’, etc., and other temporal expressions such as ‘tomorrow’, ‘next year’, ‘a while ago’, etc.

In fiction, deictic language helps to build the spaces and temporal settings of fictional worlds, and helps to determine the positioning and orientation of narrators and characters within worlds.

In her article ‘Deixis and Fictional Minds’, Elena Semino looks at how the subjective viewpoints of protagonists are portrayed through their use of deictic language. She focusses on two unusual minds: that of the poetic persona of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Wodwo’, and that of Christopher, the first person narrator of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She reveals some distinct peculiarities in the way the characters use deictic language. The linguistic details of these peculiarities corroborate some of the literary criticism about the two texts, and enrich our understanding of exactly how these fictional minds are constructed as unusual.

The poetic persona of Hughes’ poem, the ‘wodwo’ of the title, is a wild, sprite-like creature. Semino begins her analysis of the poem by pointing out that the poem’s free verse form, non-standard punctuation (including capitalisation only of ‘I’) and fragmented syntax create an effect of disorientation, anxiety and rushed, chaotic movement. She perceives a lack of boundaries and an impression of the speaker as primitive and self-focussed. She observes repeated references to lack of roots and to searching, suggesting themes of origins and identity. Semino then reflects on how the deictic language contributes to these impressions. She reveals:

  • the unusual frequency of the speaker’s reference to itself (13% of the words are the person deictic words ‘I’ or ‘me’).
  • the frequency of spatial deixis referring to places near the speaker (proximal deixis), in contrast to use of only ‘that’ and ‘go’ to refer to things or places further away from speaker, or to movement in that direction (distal deixis)
  • the use of present tense verbs only, reflecting the immediate ‘now’ of the speaker, with no reference to a past or future outside of that immediate context.

Semino argues that the lack of distal deixis works with the free verse structure and lack of punctuation to make it hard for the reader to distinguish between the different times and places of the speaker’s action, creating a sense of confusion and lack of boundaries. She also argues that the wodwo focuses on itself, and its ‘here’ and ‘now’, without reference to or distinction in relation to other places, times and beings. This all contributes to sense of a mind unable to differentiate the world beyond its own immediate experience.

Semino next analyses the deixis of Christopher, Haddon’s narrator, and explores how the deictic patterning here contributes to the impression of a mind with autism. She starts by noting some salient linguistic features of Christopher’s narration, such as his (generally) limited vocabulary. She then turns to Christopher’s inability to use deictic pronouns (like ‘he’ or ‘it’) to refer to people or things he’s just mentioned, instead repeating full noun phrases (such as ‘the man’ and ‘the window’), arguably reflecting a difficulty in comprehending his environment. She also foregrounds Christopher’s unusually high use of the deictic pronoun ‘I’, and his unusually low of use of ‘you’ (apart from, occasionally, a general ‘you’, as in ‘one’) and of ‘we’, suggesting a limited will or ability to talk about, and relate to, the mental states and beliefs of others.

Semino cites the interpretative impressions of several literary critics who talk about the speakers of these texts as having unusual minds. She uses her analysis of the deixis in the two texts, and its integration with other salient features, to show the linguistic bases of these interpretations of the speakers’ nonstandard and egocentric ways of seeing their worlds.

This is a digest of the following article: Semino, E. (2011) ‘Deixis and fictional minds’, Style 45(3), 418-440.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways.

  1. Semino explains, in her article, that when discussing ‘Wodwo’ with her students, she asked them to pick out some of the lines in which they felt the deixis was unusual and challenged them to change the wording to a version they felt was closer to that which they’d expect – something more standard. She gave the example of lines like ‘… if I go / to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees’ (lines 21-22). By intervening in and rewriting extracts, students become more aware of the particular effects of the words used. Deictic language is frequent in the poems studied in Poetic voices (AS and A level). Students could be guided through examining the effects of the deictic patterning in the poetry of John Donne, Robert Browning, Carol Ann Duffy or Seamus Heaney through rewriting some of the more deictically dense lines. By comparing alternative versions, students can explore how the subjective points of view of the poetic personas are constructed as more or less standard and as more or less egocentric.
  1. Deixis is used in literary narration to construct and convey the parameters of a fictional world and the position and perspective of a speaker within it. We use deixis in spoken discourse, too, to depict remembered places, to enable a hearer to imagine and orient themselves within the surroundings. However, places can be described equally vividly without any use of orienting deixis – without reference to a particular perspective. In looking at the anthology of texts explored in Remembered places (AS and A level), students could investigate which speakers tend to convey remembered places with little or no deixis, and which speakers depict a place through reference to a perspective within it. In the latter case, students could explore whether that perspective is the speaker’s own remembered position or a ‘projected’ position. Students could also explore collaborative use of deixis, in conversational interactions, whereby speakers negotiate and clarify subjective positions and orientations within their respective imaginative conceptualisations of the place.
  1. Within her article, Semino reports how she compared the frequency of the wodwo’s and Christopher’s uses of ‘I’ with the frequency of ‘I’ in the ‘Imaginative Writing’ section of the British National Corpus Sampler (which contains approximately 233 000 words). In doing so, she verified her intuition that the wodwo and Christopher use ‘I’ much more frequently than is standard in imaginative writing, providing clear evidence of their comparative egocentricity. CLiC 1.0 (see is a freely available online corpus tool which can be used by students for personal investigations like these within their work on Making connections (A level).
  2. As mentioned above, Semino looks at how Christopher’s limited vocabulary contributes to her impressions of his mind. Authors construct a character’s personal vocabulary, at the level of lexis, and combine this with personal styles of expression at higher discourse levels, such as styles of phrasing, of conversational interaction, and so on, to convey a fully-fledged, believable and individual ‘mind’. Students can explore how authors create characters’ mind styles through this combination of personal vocabulary and expressions in their study of their set novel Imagined worlds (A level) and use this to construct their own voices when completing textual intervention tasks Writing about society (A level).