Pragmatic is the study of language use in context. In contrast to semantics, which looks at the meaning that grammar and vocabulary impart, pragmatics studies how those words and concepts are used in particular situations. Specifically, it considers inferred meanings and the interaction of speakers and listeners in specific contexts. It is also a framework for understanding the effects of the speaker’s physical context, such as body language and tone of voice.
To put it simply, a pragmatic person is one who takes a real-world approach to problems and solutions. This is in contrast to someone who is more idealistic, such as a four-year old who wants a unicorn for their birthday.
The term pragmatics comes from the Greek word pragma, which means “deed.” It is often thought of as an adjective, denoting people who are practical and down to earth. However, it can also be a noun, referring to the scientific principle of doing what works best in a given situation.
It is not surprising that a scientific discipline that concerns itself with practical issues such as pragmatics has taken on an adjectival form, especially since the word pragmatic describes a philosophy of doing what works and taking a realistic approach to life. However, the fact that pragmatics is a branch of linguistics has led to many misunderstandings and misconceptions.
The most basic confusion is the conflation of pragmatics with semantics. In some cases, it is legitimate to separate pragmatics from semantics, such as when the ambiguity or vagueness of an utterance makes its meaning unintelligible. In these cases, a clearer understanding of the semantics of an utterance can help us determine its pragmatic meaning.
Other cases, however, are less clear cut. For example, the understanding of irony is a pragmatic issue that involves a mixture of semantic and pragmatic information. Research shows that pragmatic knowledge is crucial to the understanding of irony, but that it does not necessarily come first in linguistic processing. Moreover, the semantic and pragmatic information in an utterance may be combined in various ways, including by speech act theory, relevance theory, and conversational implicature.
Pragmatics is often studied using experimental methods, such as a controlled naturalistic experiment. The resulting data can help identify factors that influence the way people produce and interpret pragmatic meaning. But the enormous variation in experimental results, recently referred to as the replication crisis, has led some scholars to call for greater attention to contextual and other factors that may contribute to the variation in pragmatic outcomes across experiments.
Despite the ongoing replication crisis, researchers have made important contributions to our pragmatic understanding of the way people use language. Nonetheless, the time is ripe for experimental pragmatics to become more inclusive by considering task demands as an enduring part of any experimental pragmatic situation. This would allow scholars to create pragmatic theories that are specifically tailored to the different tasks people perform in different experiments. By doing so, pragmatics research can provide a more holistic view of the real-world pragmatics that matters to the vast majority of people.