What Is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is a branch of linguistic study that explores how our use of language is determined by social and physical contexts. It is often considered to be the most practical branch of linguistics because it examines how people use words to communicate with each other.

Unlike semantics, syntax, and semiotics, pragmatics is not concerned with the meanings of expressions but with how these linguistic expressions are interpreted by speakers or listeners in specific contexts. This is because a speaker or listener’s interpretation of a sentence or phrase is dependent on a variety of factors, including the subject matter, the utterance’s context, and the speech act performed by the speaker or listener.

The definition of pragmatics is a topic that can be controversial because there are several different opinions on what it means to be pragmatic and what the best theory of this type of linguistic analysis might be. However, it is an important topic that has been explored extensively in linguistic studies.

Some experts have categorized the different aspects of pragmatics into two different models: ‘literalism’ and ‘contextualism’. ‘Literalists’ believe that semantics is the core of language and that it is autonomous, with little ‘pragmatic intrusion’; ‘contextualists’, on the other hand, adopt the basic outlines of the Relevance Theory view of the importance of pragmatics at every level, while perhaps demurring on many of the details and the psychological orientation.

A ‘literalist’ approach to pragmatics is often based on the work of philosophers such as John Grice, who studied how people used language to convey information. He wrote that ‘language is a social construction, a device in which the truth-conditions of propositions are compositionally determined,’ and he believed that ‘each word or sentence represents a complete thought or proposition,’ as opposed to a sub-sentential complex expression.

Other theories of pragmatics focus on conversational implicatures, which refer to the various things that a speaker or listener implies and which a speaker’s or listener’s listener infers from the words said. These concepts are sometimes referred to as ‘the language of utterance’ and ‘language of conversation’.

Another way to distinguish between ‘near-side’ and ‘far-side’ pragmatics is to take the ‘what’ in a sentence as a boundary. In the classical period, ‘near-side’ pragmatics dealt with issues that are directly related to what a speaker says, and the ‘far-side’ focused on what happens beyond saying: what speech acts are performed in or by a sentence or what implicatures are generated by a sentence.

Whether we can make sense of an utterance by interpreting it within its context is an issue that is debated in linguistics and other disciplines. Traditionally, people have defined a’sentence’ as the grammatical complex expression that can express a complete thought or proposition, but this is now challenged by contextualists who see sentences as utterance-types.

‘Near-side’ and ‘far-side’ linguistic analysis have been widely contrasted since the 1930s, but there are some similarities between the two perspectives. Some ‘near-side’ approaches, such as those of Robert Kaplan and William Kempson, have been used in a more formal, abstract fashion by philosophers. ‘Far-side’ approaches, such as those of David Strauss and Michael Perry, have been more empirically oriented, in which the ‘what’ of an utterance is treated as a more concrete reality.