What Is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics studies the way people use language to convey information. Unlike other branches of linguistics such as syntax and semantics, pragmatics focuses on the context in which an utterance is made. A typical definition of pragmatics states that it is the study of how people communicate intention, meaning, and knowledge in a particular speech situation. It also studies the ways in which the listener translates these intentions into a grammatical interpretation.

There are many different approaches to pragmatics, and some of them overlap with other disciplines such as semiotics and philosophy. The field has evolved to include both verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as a range of social situations, from everyday interactions with friends to formal discussions in a classroom. Some researchers also focus on a specific language variety, such as Spanish or Chinese, while others examine the general principles of pragmatics across languages.

The field of pragmatics was first developed in the 19th century, although its roots stretch back to antiquity, when rhetoric was considered one of the liberal arts. It was influenced by the philosopher pragmatism, who argued that language is an activity rather than a collection of static rules. Today, pragmatics is a multidisciplinary area of study that encompasses the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

There is often a misconception that semantics and pragmatics are two distinct topics, but they are actually quite closely related. The key difference is that semantics focuses on the conventional meanings attached to words and phrases, while pragmatics considers the ways in which these words and phrases are used in specific contexts.

To put it another way, the goal of semantics is to provide a set of rules for matching up sentences with the propositions that they express. This is a separate issue from the more general theory of how language works, which includes concepts such as relevance theory (first proposed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson) and Grice’s ideas about conversational implicature.

The distinction between semantics and pragmatics is important to understanding how people communicate. However, some theorists take the view that there is no real need to make this distinction. They describe their approach as a kind of minimal pragmatics, which emphasizes the role of intention-recognition in language use and makes only limited intrusions into autonomous semantics.

This sort of pragmatics aims to resolve references and ambiguity in a speech context, and it is often referred to as near-side pragmatics. It includes resolution of ambiguity, vagueness, the reference of proper names and indexicals, demonstratives, and anaphors, as well as managing the flow of reference in a conversation.

Another kind of pragmatics is called far-side pragmatics, which addresses the ways in which the speaker and hearer manage their expectations about the implication and meaning of an utterance. This includes issues such as the conventions that dictate whether an utterance is interpreted as a command, a request, or an invitation, and the role of presupposition in interpreting an utterance.