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Semantics vs. Pragmatics

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Semantics vs. Pragmatics

Semantics and pragmatics are two important branches of linguistics (the study of language). While they both study meaning, there are a few important differences between them!

Semantics vs. pragmatics meaning

  • Semantics studies the meaning of words, phrases, sentences, and larger chunks of discourse. It also examines how smaller parts of discourse interact to form the meaning of larger expressions.
  • Pragmatics studies the same words and meaning but places an emphasis on social context.

In simple terms, semantics looks at the literal meaning of words and the meanings that are created by the relationships between linguistic expressions. Pragmatics is similar to semantics in that it examines how meaning is created; however, it pays more attention to context.

Pragmatics recognizes how important context can be when interpreting the meaning of discourse and also considers things such as irony, metaphors, idioms, and implied meanings.

"I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse! "

Semantics = We would observe the literal meaning created by these words and would assume that this person wants to eat a horse.

Meaning with pragmatics = If we examine this sentence from a pragmatics perspective, we also consider the context and what the speaker is trying to imply. Do you think they actually want to eat a horse? Or are they just saying they are very hungry? Is the speaker just making a general comment? Or do you think they are dropping a hint that they want to be fed?

Semantics vs. pragmatics hungry horses pragmatics StudySmarterFrom a pragmatics perspective, the phrase "hungry as a horse" just means "really hungry". - StudySmarter Originals

Differences between semantics and pragmatics

Here's a handy table for you to see the key differences between semantics and pragmatics.

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

Now you have a basic understanding of the main differences between semantics and pragmatics, let's delve a little deeper into what each term means.

What is semantics?

Semantics is the study of meaning within language. We can apply semantics to singular words, phrases, sentences, or larger chunks of discourse. Semantics examines the relationship between words and how different people can draw different meanings from those words. For example, the word 'crash' can mean an accident, a drop in the stock market, or attending a party without an invitation. How we derive meaning from the word is all in semantics!

There are two important terms that we associate with semantics: connotation and denotation. Connotation refers to all the possible meanings we associate with a word beyond the dictionary definition. In contrast, denotation refers to the literal meaning of the word. For example, the word 'blue' is a colour (denotation) but can also be associated with feelings of sadness (connotation).

The term semantics (derived from the Greek word for sign) was coined by the French linguist Michel Bréal, who is considered the founder of modern semantics.

Semantics is important as it helps us add meaning to our words and understand each other better. After all, what is the point of language without meaning?

There are two main categories of semantics: Lexical semantics and Phrasal semantics .

Lexical semantics = The study of the individual meaning of words.

Compositional semantics = Examines how smaller parts of discourse, i.e. words, combine to form the meaning of larger linguistic expressions, i.e. sentences.

Semantics examples - idioms

Let's take a look at some examples of semantics in action. Semantics is what gives idioms their meanings. Idioms are phrases or words that have predetermined connotative meanings that can't be deduced from their literal meaning.

Example.

The literal meaning of the word 'white' is a colour without a hue. However, look at the following idiomatic phrases:

'White lie'

'White noise'

Neither of these uses of the word white refers to colour, but we all know what they mean!

Example.

Take a look at this symbol. What does it mean to you?

#

If you asked someone over a certain age, they would probably recognize this symbol (the hash) as the number sign. However, younger people would probably call this a hashtag- a symbol used to group topics on social media.

In both of these examples, the meaning is all in the semantics!

Semantics is limited in its scope. It examines the literal interpretations of words and sentences within a context and ignores things such as irony, metaphors, and implied meaning.

What is pragmatics?

Pragmatics helps us look beyond the literal meaning of words and utterances and focuses on how meaning is constructed within context. 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 use a language and how they communicate with each other.

Pragmatics looks at the difference between the literal meaning of words and their intended meaning within social contexts and takes things such as irony, metaphors and intended meanings into account.

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.

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 important as it is key to understanding language use in context and acts as the basis for all language interactions. Pragmatics takes a more practical approach to understanding the construction of meaning within language.

What is an example of pragmatics?

Let's take a look at some examples of pragmatics in action.

Example.

You're late to work, and your boss says, 'What time do you call this ?! ' in an angry voice.

By examining the context and your boss's tone of voice, you can infer that your boss does not want to know the time but actually wants to know why you are late.

Semantics vs pragmatics Angry boss pragmatics StudySmarterThe implied meaning of "what time do you call this" is often inferred as "why are you so late?" - StudySmarter Originals

Example.

It's date night for you and your partner. You ask your partner where you are going for dinner, and they say, 'Oh, I don't know, McDonalds? '. You respond, 'How romantic!'

From a pragmatic perspective, it can be inferred that you don't actually think a date to McDonalds is romantic - you are being ironic.

Semantics vs. pragmatics examples

Now that you have a better understanding of semantics and pragmatics let's look at some practical examples highlighting the differences between the two.

Example.

Picture this: You pick up the phone and call your favourite restaurant.

You: "Hi, do you have any tables free this Saturday? "

Restaurant manager: “Yes, we do. " They put down the phone.

What happened?

Semantically, you asked if they had any tables, and they gave you a literal answer. However, when we engage pragmatics, it can be inferred that you wanted to reserve a table for this Saturday.

Example.

"It's cold in here, isn't it? " (looks towards the open window)

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

Pragmatics = From a pragmatic perspective, there may be another meaning associated with this question. For example, the speaker may be hinting that they want the window closed. The context would make this clear.

Implicature

Implicature is an utterance that implies or suggests something without it being explicitly said. The term was coined by the philosopher HP Grice in 1975 and is an important part of pragmatics.

Take a look at the previous example:

"It's cold in here, isn't it?" (looks towards the open window)

The speaker hasn't asked for anything to be done, but as the window is wide open, it would be safe to assume they would like it closed. In this case, the utterance is an example of implicature because the speaker never explicitly asked for the window to be closed; it was implied instead.

Semantics vs. pragmatics - key takeaways

  • Both semantics and pragmatics are important branches of linguistics that look at meaning within language.

  • Semantics studies the meaning of words and sentences.

  • Pragmatics studies the same words and meaning but within context.

  • Semantics is limited to the relationship between words, whereas pragmatics covers the relationships between words, people, and contexts.

Frequently Asked Questions about Semantics vs. Pragmatics

Pragmatics considers the context of utterances and aims to understand the inferred meaning rather than the literal meaning. 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 and doesn't want the window to be physically damaged.

Pragmatics is different from semantics as it considers the relationship between the words, people, and context in a conversation when looking at the construction of meaning. Semantics is more limited as it only considers the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences.

Semantics is the study of meaning in a language. For example, the word 'blue' refers to a color but can also be associated with feeling down or upset.

Semantics and pragmatics both look at meaning, however, pragmatics is more focussed on meaning in context.

Final Semantics vs. Pragmatics Quiz

Question

Which branch of linguistics looks at the intended meaning of words and utterances: pragmatics or semantics?


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Answer

Pragmatics.

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Question

Which branch of linguistics is more limited in its scope: pragmatics or semantics?


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Answer

Semantics.

Show question

Question

Which branch of linguistics looks at the literal meaning of words and utterances: pragmatics or semantics?


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Answer

Semantics.

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Question

Who is considered the founder of semantics?


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Answer

Michel Bréal.

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Question

What are the two main categories of semantics?


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Answer

Lexical semantics and phrasal semantics.

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Question

Who coined the term pragmatics?


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Answer

Christopher Morris.

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Question

What is the difference between connotation and denotation?


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Answer

Connotation refers to all the possible meanings we associate with a word beyond the dictionary definition. In contrast, denotation refers to the literal meaning of the word.

Show question

Question

Which branch of linguistics considers things such as irony, metaphors and intended meaning: pragmatics or semantics?


Show answer

Answer

Pragmatics.

Show question

Question

Which branch of linguistics takes a more practical approach to understanding meaning in language: pragmatics or semantics?


Show answer

Answer

Pragmatics.

Show question

Question

What different connotations can be associated with this symbol ' # '?


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Answer

Possible connotations include the number sign and a hashtag used in social media.

Show question

Question

What is semantics?

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Answer

The linguistic study of the meanings of words, phrases, sentences and larger chunks of discourse.

Show question

Question

What is pragmatics?

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Answer

The linguistic study of words and meanings in context.

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Question

Which two of the following linguistic frameworks relate to the study of meaning?

Phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, grammar, semantics and pragmatics

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Answer

Semantics and pragmatics

Show question

Question

Which field of linguistics are you studying if you're looking at the relationship between interlocutors?

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Answer

Pragmatics

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Question

What is lexical semantics?

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Answer

The study of individual meanings of words.

Show question

Question

What is compositional semantics?

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Answer

The study of how words combine to create meanings in larger linguistic expressions (sentences).

Show question

Question

What is an idiom?

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Answer

A phrase or word that has predetermined connotative meanings that can't be inferred from its literal meaning.

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Question

In what linguistic field would you study idioms?

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Answer

Semantics

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Question

Which field of study looks at the literal and implied meanings of words?

Show answer

Answer

Pragmatics

Show question

Question

Which field of linguistic study takes into account irony, metaphors, and intended meanings?

Show answer

Answer

Pragmatics

Show question

Question

What is implicature?

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Answer

Implicature is when something is implied or suggested without being said explicitly.

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