Pragmatics (Language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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. (For alternative definitions, see below.)

The term pragmatics was coined in the 1930s by the philosopher C.W. Morris. Pragmatics was developed as a subfield of linguistics in the 1970s.

Discover what 20th and 21st century writers and other notable figures have had to say about pragmatics.

Examples and Observations

"Pragmatists focus on what is not explicitly stated and on how we interpret utterances in situational contexts. They are concerned not so much with the sense of what is said as with its force, that is, with what is communicated by the manner and style of an utterance." (Geoffrey Finch, Linguistic Terms and Concepts. Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)

On Pragmatics and Human Language Behavior

"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?...The general answer is: pragmatics is needed if we want a fuller, deeper, and generally more reasonable account of human language behavior...A more practical answer would be: outside of pragmatics, no understanding; sometimes, a pragmatic account is the only one that makes sense, as in the following example, borrowed from David Lodge's Paradise News:

'I just met the old Irishman and his son, coming out of the toilet.'
'I wouldn't have thought there was room for the two of them.'
'No silly, I mean I was coming out of the toilet. They were waiting.' (1992:65)

How do we know what the first speaker meant? Linguists usually say that the first sentence is ambiguous, and they excel at producing such sentences as "Flying planes can be dangerous" or "The missionaries are ready to eat" in order to show what is meant by 'ambiguous': a word, phrase, or sentence that can mean either one or the other of two (or even several) things...For a pragmatician, this is, of course, glorious nonsense. In real life, that is, among real language users, there is no such thing as ambiguity—excepting certain, rather special occasions, on which one tries to deceive one's partner or 'keep a door open.'" (Jacob L. Mey, Pragmatics: An Introduction, 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2001)

On Alternative Definitions of Pragmatics

"We have considered a number of rather different delimitations of the field [of pragmatics]...The most promising are the definitions that equate pragmatics with 'meaning minus semantics,' or with a theory of language understanding that takes context into account, in order to complement the contribution that semantics makes to meaning. They are not, however, without their difficulties, as we have noted. To some extent, other conceptions of pragmatics may ultimately be consistent with these. For example,...the definition of pragmatics as concerned with encoded aspects of context may be less restrictive than it seems at first sight; for if in general (a) principles of language usage have as corollaries principles of interpretation, and (b) principles of language usage are likely in the long run to impinge on grammar (and some empirical support can be found for both propositions), then theories about pragmatic aspects of meaning will be closely related to theories about the grammaticalization of aspects of context. So the multiplicity of alternative definitions may well seem greater than it really is." (Stephen C. Levinson, Pragmatics. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983)

"It should be noted that, outside the USA, the term pragmatics is often used in a much broader sense, so as to include a great number of phenomena that American linguists would regard as belonging strictly to sociolinguistics: such as politeness, narrativity, and the signaling of power relations." (R.L. Trask, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts, 2nd ed., ed. by Peter Stockwell. Routledge, 2007)

On Pragmatics and Grammar

"Since the nature of grammar is held essentially to resolve into issues of the knowledge of so-called rules of composition (or competence) and, on the other hand, pragmatics is concerned with characterizing the behavior of language users (as performance), one of the main challenges in bringing the two disciplines together will be to investigate the possible links between typically human, rational knowledge and purposeful, for the larger part culturally acquired behavior...[I]f meaning is what makes people jump (i.e., makes them pay closer attention in the form of an interpretation and, in certain situations, imitate), then it should come as no surprise that the key to relating grammar and pragmatics lies in discovering the very subtle and abstract meanings behind grammatical structures, which have more often than not been thought to be devoid of any kind of functionality other than formal. So, while in the not so distant past the encroachment of pragmatics upon grammar was limited to establishing domains where 'rules' did not appear to apply (lexically prompted 'exceptions' in syntax, context-dependent expressions in semantics), we have now reached a point where certain grammatical theories adopt a fully pragmatic perspective, usually referred to as 'usage based.' This means that they address the formative impact of actual instances of language use on the system as a whole, and that meaning intentions, as a result of them being intertwined with form in any one such instance, play a crucial role at every level of organization, from the morpheme, over idioms and formulae, to constructional templates. This is how meaning (purpose), use (behavior), and linguistic knowledge can be seen as interrelated." (Frank Brisard, "Introduction: Meaning and Use in Grammar." Grammar, Meaning and Pragmatics, ed. by Frank Brisard, Jan-Ola Östman, and Jef Verschueren. John Benjamins, 2009)​

On Pragmatics and Semantics

"[T]he boundary between what counts as semantics and what counts as pragmatics is still a matter of open debate among linguists...'Both [pragmatics and semantics] deal with meaning, so there is an intuitive sense in which the two fields are closely related. There is also an intuitive sense in which the two are distinct: Most people feel they have an understanding of the 'literal' meaning of a word or sentence as opposed to what it might be used to convey in a certain context. Upon trying to disentangle these two types of meaning from each other, however, things get considerably more difficult." (Betty J. Birner, Introduction to Pragmatics. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Pragmatics (Language)." ThoughtCo, May. 22, 2018, Nordquist, Richard. (2018, May 22). Pragmatics (Language). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Pragmatics (Language)." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 24, 2018).