Pragmatic Competence

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

pragmatic competence
Pragmatic competence, says Naoko Taguchi, "is part of human social cognition and develops naturally as linguistic and cognitive abilities mature" (Pragmatic Competence, 2009). (Getty Images)

In linguistics, pragmatic competence is the ability to use language effectively in a contextually appropriate fashion. Pragmatic competence is a fundamental aspect of a more general communicative competence.

In Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics (2003), linguist Anne Barron offers this more expansive definition: "pragmatic competence . . . is understood as the knowledge of the linguistic resources available in a given language for realizing particular illocutions, knowledge of the sequential aspects of speech acts, and finally, knowledge of the appropriate contextual use of the particular language's linguistic resources."

The term pragmatic competence was introduced by sociolinguist Jenny Thomas in 1983 in the article "Cross-Cultural Pragmatic Failure" (Applied Linguistics). In that article, she defined pragmatic competence as "the ability to use language effectively in order to achieve a specific purpose and to understand language in context."

Examples and Observations

  • Grammatical Competence and Pragmatic Competence
    "A speaker's 'linguistic competence' would be made up of grammatical competence ('abstract' or decontextualized knowledge of intonation, phonology, syntax, semantics, etc.) and pragmatic competence (the ability to use language effectively in order to achieve a specific purpose and to understand language in context). This parallels Leech's (1983) division of linguistics into 'grammar' (by which he means the decontextualized formal system of language) and 'pragmatics' (the use of language in a goal-oriented speech situation in which S [the speaker] is using language in order to produce a particular effect in the mind of the H [the hearer]."
    (Jenny Thomas, "Cross-Cultural Pragmatic Failure," 1983. Rpt. in World Englishes: Critical Concepts in Linguistics, Vol. 4, ed. by Kingsley Bolton and Braj B. Kachru. Routledge, 2006)
  • Properties of Pragmatic Competence
    "Intrinsic to this decision-making process [in using language to communicate] are several principles that concur to define the nature of pragmatic competence. In particular, individuals make choices and build strategies based on some of the unique properties of pragmatic/communicative competence, such as:
    - variability: the property of communication that defines the range of communicative possibilities, among which is formulating communicative choices;
    - negotiability: the possibility of making choices based on flexible strategies;
    - adaptibility; the ability to modulate and regulate communicative choices in relation to the communicative context;
    - salience: the degree of awareness reached by communicative choices;
    - indeterminacy: the possibility to re-negotiate pragmatic choices as the interaction unfolds in order to fulfill communicative intentions;
    - dynamicity: development of the communicative interaction in time."
    (M. Balconi and S. Amenta, "From Pragmatics to Neuropragmatics." Neuropsychology of Communication, ed. by Michela Balconi. Springer, 2010)
  • "[Noam] Chomsky accepts that language is used purposefully; indeed, in later writings he introduced the term pragmatic competence—knowledge of how language is related to the situation in which it is used. Pragmatic competence 'places language in the institutional setting of its use, relating intentions and purposes to the linguistic means at hand' (Chomsky, 1980a, p. 225). As well as knowing the structure of a language, we have to know how to use it. There is little point in knowing the structure of:
    58. Can you lift that box?
    if you can't decide whether the speaker wants to discover how strong you are (a question) or wants you to move the box (a request).

    "It may be possible to have grammatical competence without pragmatic competence. A schoolboy in a Tom Sharpe novel Vintage Stuff (Sharpe, 1982) takes everything that is said literally; when asked to turn over a new leaf, he digs up the headmaster's camellias. But knowledge of language use is different from knowledge of language itself; pragmatic competence is not linguistic competence. The description of grammatical competence explains how the speaker knows that
    59. Why are you making such a noise?
    is a possible sentence of English, and that
    60. *Why you are making such a noise.
    is not. It is the province of pragmatic competence to explain whether the speaker who says:
    61. Why are you making such a noise?
    is requesting someone to stop, or is asking a genuine question out of curiosity, or is muttering a sotto voce comment."
    (V.J. Cook and M. Newson, Chomsky's Universal Grammar: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 1996)