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What is Pragmatics?


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What is pragmatics?   

It’s the contextual meaning of our language. 

You might be asking - how is that different from semantics? It’s the ‘contextual’ part. When you know the semantics of a language, you know the vocabulary of that language. That is, you know what words and sentences mean in a literal sense. 

When you know the pragmatics of a language, you go beyond literal meaning and understand the subtle art of conversation. If you’re looking for something to be grateful for today, you can thank your knowledge of pragmatics for how you take social, cultural, and situational factors into consideration when communicating with language. 

For example, your pragmatic knowledge is what allows you to do things like politely hedge a request, cleverly read between the lines, negotiate turn-taking norms in conversation, and navigate ambiguity in context. We’ll look at some examples of these later on. The takeaway? Semantics = literal meaning. Pragmatics = meaning in context. 

Why do we need pragmatics? 

Because language is ambiguous and people don’t always say what they mean.

How is language ambiguous? 

For instance, imagine you see a news headline: “A stolen painting was found by a tree.” This sentence is ambiguous; it has two possible meanings. In one interpretation, a sentient tree (perhaps named Tim, for Timber) stumbled upon a stolen painting. 

In the other interpretation, the painting was discovered (by humans) in its location next to a tree. This sentence is ambiguous because the word ‘by’ has multiple meanings that work semantically in this sentence. 

But by applying pragmatic knowledge of how the world works (i.e. that trees don’t have the agency to find things), you’re able to easily ignore the unlikely interpretation in favor of the likely interpretation. The takeaway? Languages are inherently ambiguous, and your knowledge of pragmatics helps you disambiguate meaning to facilitate everyday communication!

Why don’t people always say what they mean? 

One of the most common reasons is politeness conventions. For example, when you’re ready to leave someone’s house, you likely don’t say “I’d like to leave now, so let’s end this conversation.” Instead, you’ll employ a pragmatic strategy by saying something like “Well, it’s getting late...” 

In this case, you’re not explicitly saying you want to wrap up the conversation, but you are politely implying it. In pragmatics, there’s a name for this indirect use of language: it’s called implicature. It’s defined as the meaning a speaker intends without explicitly saying it. 

You might think this sounds passive aggressive, but we do it all the time. And for a variety of reasons. Politeness conventions are just one of them! Now that you have the name for this concept, I bet you’ll catch yourself using and hearing implicatures all the time. You’re welcome!

How does pragmatics work?

A speaker makes assumptions and a listener makes inferences in order to reach common ground.

And at the core of everyday pragmatics is the goal of understanding and being understood. This is known as the Cooperative Principle. And it was introduced back in 1970s by the late philosopher of language Paul Grice. Grice also authored what has come to be known as the Gricean Maxims. These are four general pragmatic rules that seem to hold in most situations and most languages. 

  1. Be concise. Provide as much information as is needed, and no more. 
  2. Be truthful. Don’t lie or say things you don’t believe.
  3. Be relevant. Say things that are pertinent to the discussion at hand. 
  4. Be clear. Avoid obscurity and ambiguity where possible. 

These 4 maxims are like the glue that holds together a cohesive conversation. 

However, like any framework, there are plenty of exceptions. For example, when using sarcasm, we might intentionally violate the maxim of being truthful for humorous effect. When nervous, we might violate the maxim of being concise because we feel the need to ramble on. There are also differences in how these maxims play out interculturally. In fact, there is a whole field of linguistics that analyzes differences in pragmatic norms between language and cultural backgrounds. It’s called intercultural pragmatics

Thanks for reading! Here’s a recap…

  • Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics dedicated to understanding meaning in context.
  • Pragmatic knowledge is important to have because languages are ambiguous and people don’t always say what they mean. 
  • Since our conversations are full of ambiguity and implicatures, we rely on pragmatic inferencing and principles (e.g. the Cooperative Principle, Gricean Maxims) to understand each other.

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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

Emily, a Pittsburgh native, is a linguist at Mango Languages whose areas of specialization are the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing and production. Having studied 7 languages and lived in various countries abroad, she sees multilingualism—and the cultural diversity that accompanies it—as the coolest of superpowers. Complementary to her work at Mango, Emily is a Lecturer of Spanish at the University of Tennessee, a Producer of the We Are What We Speak docu-series, and get this...a story-telling standup comedian!

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