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English

Pragmatics is an important branch of linguistics. It helps us look beyond the literal meaning of words and utterances and allows us to focus on how meaning is constructed in specific contexts . 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 communicate with each other.

What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics looks at the difference between the literal meaning of words and their intended meaning in social contexts. It takes into account things such as irony, metaphor and intention.

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 a linguistic term and should not be confused with the adjective ' pragmatic ', which means dealing with things sensibly and practically.

What is the History of Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is one of the youngest of the linguistic disciplines; however, its history can be traced back to the 1870s and the philosophers Charles Sanders Pierce, John Dewey, and William James.

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that considers words as tools for understanding the world and rejects the idea that the function of thought is to mirror reality directly. Pragmatists suggest that all philosophical thought, including language, is best understood in terms of its practical uses.

In 1947, Charles Morris drew upon pragmatism and his background in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology to set out his theory of pragmatics in his book ' Signs , Language and Behaviour '. Morris said that pragmatics " deals with the origins, uses, and effects of signs within the total behaviour of the interpreters of signs. " ¹

In the case of pragmatics, signs refer to the movements, gestures, body language, and tone of voice that usually accompanies speech rather than physical signs, such as road signs.

What are some examples of pragmatics?

Pragmatics considers the meaning of language within its social context and refers to how we use words in a practical sense. Therefore, to understand what is genuinely being said, we must examine the context (including the physical location) and look out for social cues, such as body language and tone of voice.

Let's look at some different examples and see if it starts to make a bit more sense.

Example 1.

Picture this: You and your friend are sitting in your bedroom studying, and she says, “ It's hot in here. Can you crack open a window? "

If we take this literally, your friend is asking you to crack the window - to damage it. However, taken in context, we can infer that they are actually asking for the window to be opened a little.

Example 2.

Picture this: You're talking to a neighbour and they look bored. Your neighbour keeps looking at their watch, and they don't appear to be paying much attention to what you're saying. Suddenly, they say, " Gosh, would you look at the time! "

The literal meaning is that your neighbour is instructing you to look at the time. However, we can infer that they are trying to get away from the conversation due to their general body language.

Example 3.

Picture this: You are walking through college, and you bump into a friend of a friend, who says, " Hey, how're you doing? "

In this case, it is unlikely that your friend wants to hear the highs and lows of your entire week. A common answer would be something like, " Good thanks, and you? "

Pragmatics Bored woman looking at watch StudySmarterBored woman looking at watch, Hannah Morris - StudySmarter Originals

Why is pragmatics important?

Pragmatics is key to understanding language use in context and is a useful basis for understanding language interactions.

Imagine a world where you had to explain everything you meant in full; there could be no slang, jokes probably wouldn't be funny, and conversations would be twice as long!

Let's take a look at what life would be like without pragmatics.

' What time do you call this ?! '

Literal meaning = What time is it?

Real meaning = Why are you so late?!

Because of the insights of pragmatics, we know that the speaker does not actually want to know what time it is, but is making the point that the other person is late. In this case, it would be best to apologise rather than give the speaker the time!

Now, consider the following sentences. How many different meanings can they have? How important is context when inferring the meaning of each sentence?

  • You're on fire!

  • You have the green light.

  • This way.

See how important context is!

Pragmatics Marshmallow on fire StudySmarterMarshmallow on fire, Hannah Morris - StudySmarter Originals

Now consider these sentences. What context do we need for them to make sense?

  • These things are awesome!

  • I want that one!

  • Oh, I've been there!

All of these sentences contain demonstrative adjectives, such as these, that , and there . Context is essential for sentences with demonstrative adjectives to make sense.

The term for the usage of demonstrative adjectives is deixis. Deixis is completely reliant on context - these words and sentences don't make any sense without context!

What are the different theories in pragmatics?

Let's take a look at the key theories in pragmatics.

The Cooperative Principle

The 'co-operative principle' is a theory by Paul Grice. Grice's theory explains how and why conversations tend to succeed rather than fail. Grice's theory is based on the idea of cooperation; he suggests that speakers inherently want to cooperate when communicating, which helps remove any obstacles to understanding. In order to facilitate successful communication, Grice says that when we talk, it is important to say enough to get your point across, be truthful, be relevant, and be as clear as possible.

This brings us to Grice's 4 Maxims . These are the four assumptions we make when talking with other people.

  • Maxim of Quality: They will tell the truth or what they think is the truth.

  • Maxim of Quantity: They will give sufficient information.

  • Maxim of relevance: They will say things that are relevant to the conversation.

  • Maxim of Manner: They will be clear, pleasant and helpful.

You can read more about the Cooperative Principle here.

Politeness theory

Penelope Brown and Steven Levinson created 'politeness theory' in the 1970s. It seeks to explain how politeness in conversation works. Politeness theory was built around the concept of 'saving face' - this means maintaining your public image and avoiding humiliation.

Brown and Levinson suggest that we have two types of face: positive face and negative face.

  • Positive face is our self-esteem. For example, our desire to be liked, loved, and reliable.

  • Negative face is our desire to be free to act as we wish, to be unimpeded.

When we are polite to people, we are appealing to either their positive or negative face.

  • Appealing to a person's positive face = Making the individual feel good and positive about themselves.

You always wear such lovely clothes! I'd love to borrow something one day. "

  • Appealing to a person's negative face = making the other person feel like they haven't been taken advantage of.

" I know it's a real pain, and I hope you don't mind, but could you please print these off for me? "

You can read more about politeness theory here .

Conversational implicature

'Conversational implicature', sometimes known simply as 'implicature', is another theory from Paul Grice. It looks at indirect speech acts . When examining implicatures, we want to know what the speaker means, even though they haven't explicitly said it. It's an indirect form of communication.

Conversational implicature is directly linked to the co-operative theory. It relies on the basis that the speaker and the listener are cooperating. When a speaker implies something, they can be confident that the listener will understand it.

For example:

A couple are watching TV, but they are both looking at their phones and not paying much attention to the TV. The boy says, " Are you watching this? " The girl grabs the remote and changes the channel.

Nobody explicitly suggested changing the channel, but the meaning was implied.

You can read more about conversational implicature here .

What is the difference between pragmatics and semantics?

Semantics and pragmatics are two of the main branches of linguistics. While both semantics and pragmatics study the meaning of words in language, there are a couple of key differences between them.

Semantics refers to the meaning that grammar and vocabulary provide, and does not consider the context or inferred meanings. In contrast, pragmatics looks at the same words but in their social context. Pragmatics considers the relationship between social context and language.

Example 1.

" It's cold in here, isn't it? "

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

Pragmatics = there may be another meaning associated with this question. For example, the speaker may be hinting that they want the heating turned on or the window closed. The context would make this clearer.

Here's a handy table for you that sets out some of the key differences between semantics and pragmatics.

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

You can read more about the differences between semantics vs pragmatics here .

Pragmatics - key takeaways

  • Pragmatics is the study of the meaning of language in social context.
  • Pragmatics is rooted in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.
  • Pragmatics considers the construction of meaning through the use of context and signs, such as body language and tone of voice.
  • Pragmatics is similar to semantics, but not quite the same! Semantics is the study of words and their meanings, whereas pragmatics is the study of words and their meanings in social context.
  • Some of the main pragmatic theories are the 'Co-operative principle', 'Politeness theory', and 'Conversational implicature'.

¹ Charles W. Morris, Signs, Language and Behavior, 1946

Frequently Asked Questions about Pragmatics

Pragmatics is an important branch of linguistics. It helps us look beyond the literal meaning of words and utterances and allows us to focus on how meaning is constructed within context.

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 a little and does not want the window to be physically damaged. 

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that considers words as tools for understanding the world. Pragmatism rejects the idea that the function of thought is to mirror reality directly.

Semantics refers to the meaning that grammar and vocabulary impart; it does not consider the context or any inferred meanings. In contrast, pragmatics looks at the same words and grammar, but within context. Pragmatics considers the relationship between the physical context and each individual involved in the conversation.

Some of the main theories in pragmatics are the Co-operative principle and Grice's Four Maxims, Politeness theory, and Conversational implicature.

Pragmatic is an adjective which means 'dealing with things sensibly and practically'.

Final Pragmatics Quiz

Question

Pragmatics looks at:

  1. The literal meaning of utterances.

  2. The constructed meaning of utterances in context.

  3. The grammar of utterances.

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Answer

B. The constructed meaning of utterances in context.

Show question

Question

Pragmatics is rooted in philosophy, sociology, and what?


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Answer

Anthropology.

Show question

Question

Who coined the term Pragmatics in the 1930s?


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Answer

Christopher Morris.


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Question

In the case of pragmatics, signs refer to:

  1. Movements, gestures, body language, and tone of voice.

  2. Road signs.

  3. Winking.

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Answer

A. Movements, gestures, body language, and tone of voice.

Show question

Question

The following words are examples of what? These, Those, This, That.

  1. Modal verbs.

  2. Proper nouns.

  3. Demonstrative adjectives.

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Answer

C. Demonstrative adjectives.

Show question

Question

Who created the Co-operative Theory?


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Answer

Paul Grice.

Show question

Question

What are Grice's Four Maxims?


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Answer

  • Maxim of Quality 

  • Maxim of Quantity 

  • Maxim of relevance 

  • Maxim of Manner

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Question

 In Politeness Theory, what are the different types of face?

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Answer

Positive Face and Negative Face.

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Question

How is semantics different from pragmatics?


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Answer

Semantics looks at the meaning of words and grammar without context, whereas pragmatics looks at the meaning of words and grammar within context.

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Question

Does pragmatics look at the literal meaning of utterances or the intended meaning of utterances?


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Answer

The intended meaning.

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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.

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Question

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


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Answer

Pragmatics.

Show question

Question

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


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Answer

Pragmatics.

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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.

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Question

What is a speech act?

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Answer

An action that is performed in saying something.

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Who introduced the concept of speech act theory in his book How to do things with words?


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Answer

J. L Austin

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Question

J. R Searle classified speech acts into 5 categories. What are they?


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Answer

Declarations, assertives, expressives, directives, and commissives. 


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According to Austin and Searle, there are three main actions related to speech acts: locutionary act, illocutionary act and what?


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Answer

Perlocutionary act.

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Question

Which speech act aims to change the behavior of others?

  1. Locutionary act

  2. Illocutionary act

  3. Perlocutionary act

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Answer

C. Perlocutionary act.


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Question

According to Searle's 5 types of speech acts, what is the purpose of commissives


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Answer

The speaker is committing to do something in the future.

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According to Searle's 5 types of speech acts, what is the purpose of  expressives ?


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Answer

The speaker states something about their psychological attitudes and their attitudes towards a situation.

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Question

The following sentence is an example of which of Searle's 5 types of speech acts: 'I now declare you husband and wife.' 


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Answer

Declarative.

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Question

The following sentence is an example of which of Searle's 5 types of speech acts: ' Can you close the window, please? '


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Answer

Directive. 

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Question

What is direct speech in pragmatics?


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Answer

Direct speech is a speech act that has a direct relationship between the type of sentence and the function.

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Question

Who created the Cooperative Principle?

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Answer

Paul Grice

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Question

What does the Cooperative Principle aim to understand?


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Answer

How people cooperate to facilitate successful conversations.

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What are Grice's 4 Conversational Maxims?


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Answer

Maxim of Quality, Maxim of Quantity, Maxim of Relevance, and Maxim of Manner.

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What are the two different ways maxims can be broken?


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Answer

Violated and Flouted.

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Question

The following statement relates to which of Grice's Maxims?

' You should avoid obscurity or ambiguity .'

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Answer

Maxim of Manner.

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Question

The following statement relates to which of Grice's Maxims?

' You should make your contribution to the conversation as informative as required. '

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Answer

Maxim of Quantity.

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Question

The following statement relates to which of Grice's Maxims?

' You should only say things you believe to be true. '

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Answer

Maxim of Quality.

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Question

Which of Grice's Maxims has been violated if you purposely tell a lie?


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Answer

Maxim of Quality.

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Question

Which of Grice's Maxims has been flouted if you use lots of excessive academic terms in a non-academic setting?


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Answer

 Maxim of Manner.

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Question

Being ironic is an example of violating one of Grice's Maxims, true or false?


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Answer

False. This is an example of flouting a Maxim.

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Question

By using deixis, the speaker :

  • Need not be aware of the context
  • Needs to be aware of who they are talking to
  • Can refer to a specific time and place

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Answer

  • Can refer to a specific time and place

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Question

Question 2: Proximal deixis involves:

  • Referencing an object far away from the speaker
  • Referencing a time connected to the speaker
  • Referencing an object or person near to the speaker

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Answer

Referencing an object or person near to the speaker


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Question

Give an example of deixis.


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Answer

‘It’s over there’, ‘Give me that one,’ ‘I’m here now’ etc.


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Question

What are the three traditional categories of deixis?


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Answer

Temporal, spatial, and personal.

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Question

A tour guide is showing a group around a historic monument. How can he rephrase the following, using deixis? 

‘If you come over to this part of the castle, I can show you where the siege took place 500 years ago.’

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Answer

‘If you come over here I can show you where it happened, all that time ago.’


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Question

 Give an example of proximal deixis.


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Answer

‘This is my dog here,’ ‘This house here is mine,’ etc.


Show question

Question

Anaphora is used: 

  • to indicate specific people and places 
  • as a rhetorical device and as a reference
  • only in speeches

Show answer

Answer

Anaphora is used as a rhetorical device and as a reference


Show question

Question

Give an example of grammatical anaphora.

Show answer

Answer

Titian was born in Cadore but later moved to Venice, where he set up his studio.’

When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, she noticed a lot of books floating around her.’  etc

Show question

Question

Give examples of sentences with temporal, spatial and personal deixis.


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Answer

‘I wish you’d been here yesterday,’ ‘Last week I flew over there for a quick visit,’ etc.


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Question

What other categories (i.e. non-traditional) of deixis can you think of?


Show answer

Answer

Social deixis, discourse deixis, deictic centre, proximal deixis, distal deixis.



Show question

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