Pointing and placing

Clark, H. H. Pointing: Where language, culture, and cognition meet. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, USA, 2003, ch. Pointing and placing, pp. 243–268. [pdf]


In this chapter Clark explains why pointing is so important to communication. He says that communication is ordinarily achored to the material world and that one way it gets anchored is through pointing. Clark also explains that it exists a counterpart of pointing: placing. Trrough the use of our position and the position of the objects we refer to in the actual worlds, we shape context to reduce misunderstanding and making communication more efficient. He argues that directing-to and placing-for are two communicative acts. Indicative acts, to be precise.

Indicating has fundamentally to do with creating indexes for things. Clark explains how every indication must establish an intrinsic connection between the signal and its object. The more transparent is this connection the more effective is the act.

Indicating an object in space must also lead the participants to focus attention on that object, or in other words, anything which focuses the attention is an index. Finally every indication must establish a particular interpretation of its object. That is why we cannot use an indication that stands on its own. Also this is connected to the fact that we often find pointing-to and placing-for devices combined.

Clark highlights also how gazing is a communication device for directing the addressees’ attention to objects. However eye gaze is special as people use the direction of their gaze to designate the person or things they are attending to. Also, eye gaze is not effective unless it is registered by the person being gazed at. So we talk often of mutual gaze.

Clark defines also what he calls a perceptually conspicuous site, or PCS, a site that is perceptually conspicuous relative to the speaker and interlocutour’s current common ground. Gesturing often points to PCSs but this indication should always be combined with an interpetating context, for instance an utterance explaing the relation of the gesture with the current activity. Finally, indicating tends to be a transitory signal, while placing a continuing one. 

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