Pragmatic skills are traits that help people use language and communication in social settings. They include adapting to different circumstances, following social norms, and accurately conveying thoughts and feelings. Children often develop these skills during adolescence, but adults can also acquire them later in life.

The Relationship between Meaning, Speech Acts, and Signs

As human communication progresses from infancy to adulthood, what speakers say becomes increasingly complex. Its underlying structure goes beyond the literal meaning of an utterance, encompassing the relationships between words, the interlocutors (people engaged in a conversation), and the context in which the utterance is made. This is the basis of theories of meaning in linguistics and philosophy that distinguish between linguistically encoded and contextually derived aspects of communicated meaning.

Semantics deals with the meanings of words, whereas pragmatics focuses on the socially relevant meanings of words and speech acts. The field of pragmatics was first described by Charles W. Morris, and it was further developed by philosophers and psychologists in the 1930s and 1970s.

Definitions of Pragmatics

The main goal of pragmatics is to understand the relation between language and a speaker’s communicative intentions and actions, the uses of language that require these intentions, and the strategies hearers employ to interpret those communicative intentions and acts (e.g., through the use of eye gaze and knowledge of interlocutors). It is thus a branch of linguistics that combines insights from linguistics and sociology to examine how meanings are constructed by speakers and heard in a particular context.

Aspects of a Person’s Social Pragmatic Ability

Individual differences in a person’s social pragmatic abilities are influenced by their development of linguistic abilities and cognitive skills, such as theory of mind and executive function. A recent paper by Danielle Matthews, Hannah Biney, and Kirsten Abbott-Smith explores how these differences are reflected in pragmatic abilities in both typical and atypical populations.

There is much disagreement among researchers about how to define pragmatics. Some argue that it should be a subfield of semantics; others suggest that it should be its own separate discipline. Several approaches are currently in development, including formal and intuitionistic semantics.

Linguistic and Psychological Approaches to Pragmatics

The two most important strands of pragmatics research are in linguistics and psychology. These strands share common ground in the belief that humans make a range of linguistic choices and employ a wide variety of language-based, illocutionary, or non-linguistic cognitive and perceptual processes to achieve their communicative goals.

Consequently, pragmatics is an important disciplinary field of study that incorporates a wide range of linguistic, psychological, and social sciences. It is also an area of great interest in philosophy, anthropology, and sociology.

A number of studies have explored the relationship between pragmatics and language, primarily by studying children’s early speech and communication development. However, it has long been difficult to organize and synthesize the vast literature on this topic into a unified theoretical framework. Moreover, the findings from many of these studies are inconsistent or conflicting. Despite this, research on pragmatics continues to provide rich and exciting new insights into the nature of human communication.