When deixis goes wrong

by Craig Evans

A work colleague once told me about an incident that involved perhaps the most awkward use of deixis ever. It happened in the women’s toilets. Having observed someone else enter then immediately leave a toilet cubicle, she uttered, without thinking much of it: ‘I did that’.

 

Of course, the ‘that’ to which she was deictically referring was the act of entering and immediately leaving the toilet cubicle. It was only after the other woman flashed her a startled look, that she realised what alternative referent of ‘that’ might be at the forefront of the woman’s mind; namely the condition of the toilet that had prompted her to immediately leave the cubicle.

 

The lesson here is: when using deixis make sure your intended meaning is clear in the context in which you use it – it may spare you a great deal of embarrassment.

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