An Introduction to Pragmatics

Pragmatics is the study of context-dependent meaning in language. It involves the understanding of what is meant by a speaker’s words based on social, cultural and situational factors that influence interpretation. While semantics focuses on the ‘what’ part of a word, pragmatics focuses on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ parts.

Pragmatic studies the use of language in conversation, and is largely concerned with understanding how speakers interpret their own utterances, as well as the ways listeners respond to those utterances. Pragmatics deals with how speakers and listeners cooperate to manage a variety of pragmatic messages.

There are many different theories of pragmatics. A few of the most prominent are: (1) the Speech Act Theory, (2) rhetorical structure, (3) conversational implicature, and (4) the management of reference in discourse. The purpose of this lecture is to give an overview of these four areas of pragmatics research and their underlying assumptions.

A primary tenet of the Speech Act Theory is that people are not simply trying to recover the semantics of an utterance, but also attempting to infer what the speaker meant by the words and their connotations, as well as what the speaker intended to achieve with them. This is not easy, as the exact pragmatic meanings that people infer vary with the context of the utterance and the goals they have set for themselves in the given task.

To understand these variations, researchers have used a number of experimental techniques. For example, full phrase or sentence reading time studies provide evidence on the total cognitive effort that people make to interpret pragmatic meaning. Methods that explore local processing of specific word meanings in the phrasal or sentence level, such as moving-window techniques and eye-movement methods, are useful for investigating the different kinds of pragmatic meanings that can be interpreted at these levels.

However, as these approaches have evolved, it is increasingly apparent that they do not provide a comprehensive view of the way in which people experience linguistic communication. In particular, they fail to take into account the implicit or explicit task demands that are inevitably present in all experimental pragmatic situations. It may be that the only way to gain a fuller picture of what pragmatics is really about is to create experimental settings that are designed specifically to test the limits of a particular theory.

Teachers can integrate pragmatic instruction in the classroom by linking it to content in other language learning areas. For example, in a course that covers the textbook unit on apologies, an instructor might include a lesson about how to apologize in a particular culture or context by presenting students with some typical request scenarios and asking them to decide what they would say if their teacher asked them for help. This type of activity is a great way to reinforce that pragmatics is about how you go beyond the literal meaning of words and sentences to understand the subtle art of communication.