What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics, the linguistic field that grew out of philosophy, sociology, and anthropology, deals with how people use and understand language to communicate. This is often a complex process that involves understanding the cultural context of a communication and using appropriate language to convey what is being said.

A good way to understand pragmatics is to think about it as the science of how people interpret and understand their own words, as well as other people’s words. The word pragmatics comes from the Greek pragmatikos, which means “relation of signs to their interpreters” (Morris, 1938).

It is a scientific study that examines how people use and understand language to communicate with others. It focuses on the social contexts of language, and how people interpret what is being said through a range of strategies, such as using tone of voice, body language, and other nonverbal cues.

This study can also help teachers understand how people use and understand their own languages and teach others to do the same. In a classroom setting, teachers can give students lessons on how to express themselves appropriately given the situation and culture.

They may also give learners a variety of ways to apologize or ask for what they need, such as in their home language and the target language. This helps them develop the skills to communicate with others in a way that is helpful and respectful.

Another problem is that linguists and other scholars have a hard time making sense of the enormous amount of experimental research on pragmatic language use, which typically offers conflicting findings on how people produce and understand different aspects of communicative meaning (e.g., scalar implicatures, presuppositions, politeness, negation, irony, and metaphor). Many studies show that people understand the meaning of pragmatic messages relatively quickly (e.g., scalar imperatives, presuppositions, and ironic messages) but that they often take a long time to comprehend novel metaphors and other forms of indirect or inferential pragmatic meaning.

These conflicting results, and other difficulties in understanding how people pragmatically produce and interpret various kinds of meaning, have contributed to a growing debate in the broader fields of psycholinguistics and cognitive science about what is a “real-world” approach to language use. This has been dubbed the “replication crisis,” and it is increasingly difficult to make a case for any particular theory of how people pragmatically use their languages.

As a result, it is important to acknowledge the enduring importance of task demands in experimental pragmatics and consider them as a critical factor in our theoretical frameworks about how people use their languages. In addition, it is necessary to recognize that the constraints on a task that people engage in when they participate in experiments have interactive influences on their adaptive behaviors in those experiments (Clark and Noveck, 2006; Clark, 2010).

This broader vision is an important complement to the more traditional focus of experimental pragmatic studies on “task-dependent performances” that reflect different aspects of the cognitive effort required by individuals to convey or interpret pragmatic meaning in real-world language situations. However, the focus on “processes” that people perform in these tasks can lead to a misguided belief that, when people encounter a specific message in language, they are automatically overwhelmed by a “click of comprehension.” In reality, a “click” of comprehension is only one among several modalities of a person’s pragmatically produced and understood language messages (Clark and Noveck, 2006; Noveck and Sperber, 2004).