Temporal Deixis

You have already learned that the proximal form now can refer both to the time of speakers' utterances (e.g. when recording an answering machine message) and to the time of the message being played back to a caller (the hearer's now). While now refers to a (relative) time in present, its distal counterpart then refers to both past and future:

Why didn't they do it then? (at a past time)
I'll be around tonight, so I'll see you then. (at a future time)

You see that then is relevant to the speaker's present time, i.e. its interpretation depends on knowing the relevant utterance time. This is also true for deictic expressions such as:

  • yesterday
  • tomorrow
  • today
  • tonight
  • next week, etc.

Source of the picture:

All these expressions depend for their interpretation on knowing the relevant utterance time. Imagine you want to speak to a professor and find the note back in an hour sticked to her office door. Without any information on when the note was posted on the door, you would not know if you will have a short or a long wait ahead.

Similarly, consider the following notice: "Free beer tomorrow". You can return the next day to this bar but will still be (deictically) one day early for the free beer. Temporal events can be treated as objects that move toward us or away from us, thus the psychological basis of temporal deixis is comparable with that of spatial deixis. In English, we use the metaphor of time as going by, that is, we treat events as coming toward the speaker from the future (e.g. the coming month, approaching Christmas) and as going away from the speaker to the past. One basic type of temporal deixis is in the choice of verb tense. We can say that the present tense is always the proximal form (e.g. I work here now) and the past tense is the distal form (e.g. I worked there then). The distal forms of temporal deixis are used to communicate not only distance from current time but also distance from current reality or facts. What is treated as extremely unlikely or impossible is also marked via the distal form (e.g. If I was a rich girl…).