Pragmatics: The Social Rules You Follow When You Talk to Others

The Way People Use Language in Social Situations

Pragmatics
George Yule, Pragmatics, 1996. Illustration by Claire Cohen. © 2018 ThoughtCo.

Pragmatics is a branch of linguistics concerned with the use of language in social contexts and the ways in which people produce and comprehend meanings through language. In other words, pragmatics refers to the way people use language in social situations and the way that language is interpreted. The term pragmatics was coined in the 1930s by C.W. Morris. Pragmatics was developed as a subfield of linguistics in the 1970s.

Background

Pragmatics has its roots in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. Morris, a psychologist and philosopher, drew on his background in these fields when he laid out his theory of pragmatics in his book "Signs, Language and Behavior," explaining that the linguistic term "deals with the origins, uses, and effects of signs within the total behavior of the interpreters of signs." Signs, in terms of pragmatics, refers not to physical signs but to the subtle movements, gestures, tone of voice, and body language that often accompany speech.

Sociology—the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society—as well as anthropology also played a large role in pragmatics. Morris developed his theory based on earlier work he did in editing the writings and lectures of George Herbert Mead, an American philosopher, sociologist and psychologist, in the book "Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist," John Shook writes in  Pragmatism Cybrary, an online pragmatism encyclopedia. In that work, Mead, whose own work also drew heavily on anthropology (the study of human societies and cultures and their development), explained how communication involves much more than just the words people use; it involves the all-important social signs people make when they communicate.

Pragmatics vs. Semantics

Morris also explained that pragmatics is different than semantics, which concerns just the relations between signs and the objects they signify. Semantics refers to the specific meaning of language; pragmatics, by contrast, involves all of the other social cues that accompany language.

Pragmatics focuses not on what people say but how they say it and how others interpret their utterances in social contexts, says Geoffrey Finch in "Linguistic Terms and Concepts." Utterances are literally the units of sound you make when you talk, but the signs that accompany those utterances are what give the sounds their true meaning.

Pragmatics in Action

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) gives two examples of how pragmatics works, or how it influences language and its interpretation. In the first, ASHA notes:

"You invited your friend over for dinner. Your child sees your friend reach for some cookies and says, 'Better not take those, or you'll get even bigger.' You can't believe your child could be so rude."

In a literal sense, the daughter is simply saying that eating cookies can make you gain weight. But due to the social context, the mother interprets that same sentence to mean that her daughter is calling her friend fat. The first sentence in this explanation refers to the semantics—the literal meaning of the sentence. The second and third refer to the pragmatics, the actual meaning of the words as interpreted by a listener based on social context. In another example, ASHA notes:

"You talk with a neighbor about his new car. He has trouble staying on topic and starts talking about his favorite TV show. He doesn't look at you when you talk and doesn't laugh at your jokes. He keeps talking, even when you look at your watch and say, 'Wow. It's getting late.' You finally leave, thinking about how hard it is to talk with him."

In this all-too-familiar scenario, the speaker is literally just talking about a new car and his favorite TV show. But the listener interprets the signs the speaker is using—not looking at the listener and not laughing at his jokes—as the speaker being unaware of the listener's views (let alone his presence) and monopolizing his time. You've likely been in this kind of situation before, where the speaker is talking about perfectly reasonable, simple subjects but is unaware of your presence and your need to escape. Where the speaker sees the talk as a simple sharing of information (the semantics), you see it as a rude monopolization of your time (the pragmatics).

Pragmatics have even proved helpful in working with children with autism. Beverly Vicker, a speech and language pathologist writing on the Autism Support Network website, notes that many children with autism find it difficult to understand and pick up on what she, and many autism theorists, describe as "social pragmatics," which refers to:

"...the ability to effectively use and adjust communication messages for a variety of purposes with an array of communication partners within diverse circumstances."

Yet when educators, speech pathologists, and other interventionists teach these explicit communication skills—or social pragmatics—to children with autism spectrum disorder the results are often quite profound and can have a big impact in improving their conversational interaction skills.
 

Importance of Pragmatics

Pragmatics is the "meaning minus semantics," says Frank Brisard in his essay "Introduction: Meaning and Use in Grammar," published in "Grammar, Meaning and Pragmatics." Semantics, as noted, refers to the literal meaning of a spoken utterance. Grammar, Brisard says, involves the rules defining how the language is put together. Pragmatics takes context into account in order to complement the contribution that semantics and grammar make to meaning, he says.

David Lodge, writing in the Paradise News, further explains why pragmatics is so important to understanding language:

"What does pragmatics have to offer that cannot be found in good old-fashioned linguistics? What do pragmatic methods give us in the way of greater understanding of how the human mind works, how humans communicate, how they manipulate one another, and in general, how they use language?"

Lodge says that pragmatics is needed because it gives humans "a fuller, deeper, and generally more reasonable account of human language behavior." Without pragmatics, there is often no understanding of what language actually means, or what a person truly means when she is speaking. The context—the social signs, body language, and tone of voice (the pragmatics)—is what makes utterances clear or unclear to the speaker and her listeners.