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Pragmatics

Pragmatics is an important branch of linguistics. It helps us look beyond the literal meaning of words and utterances and allows us to focus on how meaning is constructed in specific contexts. When we communicate with other people, there is a constant negotiation of meaning between the listener and the speaker. Pragmatics looks at this negotiation and aims to understand what people mean when they communicate with each other.

Let's get properly to grips with the term 'pragmatics' before we move on to look more specifically at the linguistic field of pragmatics.

What is pragmatics in linguistics?

Pragmatics looks at the difference between the literal meaning of words and their intended meaning in social contexts. It takes into account things such as irony, metaphor and intention.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) defines pragmatics as:

The study of language which focuses attention on the users and the context of language use rather than on reference, truth, or grammar"

'Pragmatics' pronunciation

The term 'pragmatics' is pronounced pretty much as its written, as: 'prag - mat- ics.'

Synonyms for 'pragmatics'

As pragmatics is a field of linguistic study, there isn't a direct synonym for the term. There are various aspects of pragmatics such as implied meaning and speech acts. These aspects are all important in understanding the field of pragmatics as a whole.

Antonyms for 'pragmatics'

There are no direct antonyms for the field of pragmatics. Pragmatics is one of 7 linguistic frameworks which build the foundation of language study. These are: phonetics, phonology, morphology, grammar, syntax, semantics and pragmatics.

Origin of pragmatics

The philosopher and psychologist Charles W. Morris coined the term Pragmatics in the 1930s, and the term was further developed as a subfield of linguistics in the 1970s.

Pragmatics is a linguistic term and should not be confused with the adjective 'pragmatic', which means dealing with things sensibly and practically.

What is the History of Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is one of the youngest of the linguistic disciplines; however, its history can be traced back to the 1870s and the philosophers Charles Sanders Pierce, John Dewey, and William James.

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that considers words as tools for understanding the world and rejects the idea that the function of thought is to mirror reality directly. Pragmatists suggest that all philosophical thought, including language, is best understood in terms of its practical uses.

In 1947, Charles Morris drew upon pragmatism and his background in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology to set out his theory of pragmatics in his book 'Signs, Language and Behaviour'. Morris said that pragmatics "deals with the origins, uses, and effects of signs within the total behaviour of the interpreters of signs." ¹

In the case of pragmatics, signs refer to the movements, gestures, body language, and tone of voice that usually accompanies speech rather than physical signs, such as road signs.

What are some examples of pragmatics?

Pragmatics considers the meaning of language within its social context and refers to how we use words in a practical sense. Therefore, to understand what is genuinely being said, we must examine the context (including the physical location) and look out for social cues, such as body language and tone of voice.

Let's look at some different examples and see if it starts to make a bit more sense.

Example 1.

Picture this: You and your friend are sitting in your bedroom studying, and she says, “It's hot in here. Can you crack open a window? "

If we take this literally, your friend is asking you to crack the window - to damage it. However, taken in context, we can infer that they are actually asking for the window to be opened a little.

Example 2.

Picture this: You're talking to a neighbour and they look bored. Your neighbour keeps looking at their watch, and they don't appear to be paying much attention to what you're saying. Suddenly, they say, "Gosh, would you look at the time! "

The literal meaning is that your neighbour is instructing you to look at the time. However, we can infer that they are trying to get away from the conversation due to their general body language.

Example 3.

Picture this: You are walking through college, and you bump into a friend of a friend, who says, "Hey, how're you doing? "

In this case, it is unlikely that your friend wants to hear the highs and lows of your entire week. A common answer would be something like, "Good thanks, and you? "

Pragmatics Bored woman looking at watch StudySmarterWhen people say "gosh, look at the time," they never normally intend the literal meaning, Instead they're implying they want to leave or end a conversation. - StudySmarter Originals

Why is pragmatics important?

Pragmatics is key to understanding language use in context and is a useful basis for understanding language interactions.

Imagine a world where you had to explain everything you meant in full; there could be no slang, jokes probably wouldn't be funny, and conversations would be twice as long!

Let's take a look at what life would be like without pragmatics.

'What time do you call this?! '

Literal meaning = What time is it?

Real meaning = Why are you so late?!

Because of the insights of pragmatics, we know that the speaker does not actually want to know what time it is, but is making the point that the other person is late. In this case, it would be best to apologise rather than give the speaker the time!

Now, consider the following sentences. How many different meanings can they have? How important is context when inferring the meaning of each sentence?

  • You're on fire!

  • You have the green light.

  • This way.

See how important context is!

Pragmatics Marshmallow on fire StudySmarterIn this image, the literal meaning of "you're on fire" is implied. In other scenarios, "you're on fire" would be used to mean you're ding well at something. - StudySmarter Originals.

Now consider these sentences. What context do we need for them to make sense?

  • These things are awesome!

  • I want that one!

  • Oh, I've been there!

All of these sentences contain demonstrative adjectives, such as these, that, and there. Context is essential for sentences with demonstrative adjectives to make sense.

The term for the usage of demonstrative adjectives is deixis. Deixis is completely reliant on context - these words and sentences don't make any sense without context!

What are the different theories in pragmatics?

Let's take a look at the key theories in pragmatics.

The Cooperative Principle

The 'cooperative principle' is a theory by Paul Grice. Grice's theory explains how and why conversations tend to succeed rather than fail. Grice's theory is based on the idea of cooperation; he suggests that speakers inherently want to cooperate when communicating, which helps remove any obstacles to understanding. In order to facilitate successful communication, Grice says that when we talk, it is important to say enough to get your point across, be truthful, be relevant, and be as clear as possible.

This brings us to Grice's 4 Maxims. These are the four assumptions we make when talking with other people.

  • Maxim of Quality: They will tell the truth or what they think is the truth.

  • Maxim of Quantity: They will give sufficient information.

  • Maxim of Relevance: They will say things that are relevant to the conversation.

  • Maxim of Manner: They will be clear, pleasant and helpful.

Politeness theory

Penelope Brown and Steven Levinson created 'politeness theory' in the 1970s. It seeks to explain how politeness in conversation works. Politeness theory was built around the concept of 'saving face' - this means maintaining your public image and avoiding humiliation.

Brown and Levinson suggest that we have two types of face: positive face and negative face.

  • Positive face is our self-esteem. For example, our desire to be liked, loved, and reliable.

  • Negative face is our desire to be free to act as we wish, to be unimpeded.

When we are polite to people, we are appealing to either their positive or negative face.

  • Appealing to a person's positive face = Making the individual feel good and positive about themselves.

"You always wear such lovely clothes! I'd love to borrow something one day. "

  • Appealing to a person's negative face = making the other person feel like they haven't been taken advantage of.

"I know it's a real pain, and I hope you don't mind, but could you please print these off for me? "

Conversational implicature

'Conversational implicature', sometimes known simply as 'implicature', is another theory from Paul Grice. It looks at indirect speech acts. When examining implicatures, we want to know what the speaker means, even though they haven't explicitly said it. It's an indirect form of communication.

Conversational implicature is directly linked to the co-operative theory. It relies on the basis that the speaker and the listener are cooperating. When a speaker implies something, they can be confident that the listener will understand it.

For example:

A couple are watching TV, but they are both looking at their phones and not paying much attention to the TV. The boy says, "Are you watching this? " The girl grabs the remote and changes the channel.

Nobody explicitly suggested changing the channel, but the meaning was implied.

What is the difference between pragmatics and semantics?

Semantics and pragmatics are two of the main branches of linguistics. While both semantics and pragmatics study the meaning of words in language, there are a couple of key differences between them.

Semantics refers to the meaning that grammar and vocabulary provide, and does not consider the context or inferred meanings. In contrast, pragmatics looks at the same words but in their social context. Pragmatics considers the relationship between social context and language.

Example 1.

"It's cold in here, isn't it?"

Semantics = the speaker is asking for confirmation that the room is cold.

Pragmatics = there may be another meaning associated with this question. For example, the speaker may be hinting that they want the heating turned on or the window closed. The context would make this clearer.

Here's a handy table for you that sets out some of the key differences between semantics and pragmatics.

SemanticsPragmatics
The study of words and their meanings.The study of words and their meanings in context.
The literal meanings of words.The intended meaning of words.
Limited to the relationship between words.Covers the relationships between words, interlocutors (people engaged in a conversation), and context.

Pragmatics - key takeaways

  • Pragmatics is the study of the meaning of language in social context.
  • Pragmatics is rooted in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.
  • Pragmatics considers the construction of meaning through the use of context and signs, such as body language and tone of voice.
  • Pragmatics is similar to semantics, but not quite the same! Semantics is the study of words and their meanings, whereas pragmatics is the study of words and their meanings in social context.
  • Some of the main pragmatic theories are the 'Co-operative principle', 'Politeness theory', and 'Conversational implicature'.

¹Charles W. Morris, Signs, Language and Behaviour, 1946

Frequently Asked Questions about Pragmatics

Pragmatics is an important branch of linguistics. It helps us look beyond the literal meaning of words and utterances and allows us to focus on how meaning is constructed within context. 

For example:

It's hot in here! Can you crack a window?"

Here we can infer that the speaker wants the window to be opened a little and does not want the window to be physically damaged. 

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that considers words as tools for understanding the world. Pragmatism rejects the idea that the function of thought is to mirror reality directly.

Some of the main theories in pragmatics are the Co-operative principle and Grice's Four Maxims, Politeness theory, and Conversational implicature.

Pragmatic is an adjective which means 'dealing with things sensibly and practically'.

Pragmatic language refers to the social skills we apply to language use in our interactions. This relates to the linguistic field of pragmatics which studies the difference between literal and intended meanings of words.

Final Pragmatics Quiz

Question

Pragmatics looks at:

  1. The literal meaning of utterances.

  2. The constructed meaning of utterances in context.

  3. The grammar of utterances.

Show answer

Answer

B. The constructed meaning of utterances in context.

Show question

Question

Pragmatics is rooted in philosophy, sociology, and what?


Show answer

Answer

Anthropology.

Show question

Question

Who coined the term Pragmatics in the 1930s?


Show answer

Answer

Christopher Morris.


Show question

Question

In the case of pragmatics, signs refer to:

  1. Movements, gestures, body language, and tone of voice.

  2. Road signs.

  3. Winking.

Show answer

Answer

A. Movements, gestures, body language, and tone of voice.

Show question

Question

The following words are examples of what? These, Those, This, That.

  1. Modal verbs.

  2. Proper nouns.

  3. Demonstrative adjectives.

Show answer

Answer

C. Demonstrative adjectives.

Show question

Question

Who created the Co-operative Theory?


Show answer

Answer

Paul Grice.

Show question

Question

 In Politeness Theory, what are the different types of face?

Show answer

Answer

Positive Face and Negative Face.

Show question

Question

How is semantics different from pragmatics?


Show answer

Answer

Semantics looks at the meaning of words and grammar without context, whereas pragmatics looks at the meaning of words and grammar within context.

Show question

Question

Does pragmatics look at the literal meaning of utterances or the intended meaning of utterances?


Show answer

Answer

The intended meaning.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between pragmatics and semantics?

Show answer

Answer

Semantics refers to the meaning that grammar and vocabulary impart; it does not consider the context or any inferred meanings. In contrast, pragmatics looks at the same words and grammar, but within context. Pragmatics considers the relationship between the physical context and each individual involved in the conversation.

Show question

Question

What does pragmatics allow us to do?

Show answer

Answer

Focus on how meaning is constructed in specific contexts.

Show question

Question

What might pragmatics also be referred to as?

Show answer

Answer

Implied meanings

Show question

Question

Can you name four of the seven linguistic frameworks?

Show answer

Answer

Any four of the following:

phonetics, phonology, morphology, grammar, syntax, semantics or pragmatics.

Show question

Question

If, during a conversation, someone says:

"Oh gosh look at the time!"

what do they likely mean?

Show answer

Answer

That they want to end the conversation or leave.

Show question

Question

Who theorised the cooperative principle?

Show answer

Answer

Paul Grice

Show question

Question

Which of these isn't one of Grice's maxims?

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Answer

Maxim of meaning

Show question

Question

Which theory relating to pragmatics was coined by Brown and Levinson?

Show answer

Answer

Politeness theory

Show question

Question

What does positive face relate to?

Show answer

Answer

Our desires to be liked, loved and reliable.

Show question

Question

What does negative face relate to?

Show answer

Answer

Our desires to be free to do as we wish and to be unimpeded.

Show question

Question

What is an indirect speech act?

Show answer

Answer

An indirect speech act is when we imply something without explicitly saying it.

Show question

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