Pragmatic is an approach to language use that focuses on meaning in context. The term pragmatics is often confused with the study of semantics, grammar, and semiotics; however, pragmatics differs from each of these areas of linguistic study in important ways. Semantics is the study of the literal linguistic meanings of expressions; syntax involves the rules for combining words to create meaningful sentences; and semiotics examines the sign system of an utterance and how it can be understood by the audience. Pragmatics incorporates the social and contextual factors that determine meaning in addition to these other aspects of linguistics.
Pragmatism has a long history in philosophy and the social sciences, dating back to ancient times. The modern idea of pragmatism arose from the works of philosophers Charles Sanders Pierce, John Dewey, and William James. The pragmatists were critical of the empiricism of George Berkeley, who saw all experience as signs indicating probable actions, and of the 18th-century empiricists, who held that belief was justified by verification through experimentation.
The central concept of pragmatism was that ideas, beliefs, and theories should be judged by their practical value to humans. It was a critical response to idealism, which exalted the knowledge of reality to an almost metaphysical level and relegated change and action to lower levels of importance in life. In contrast, pragmatists held that ideas were useful tools for adapting to reality and controlling it, and they therefore elevated change and action to higher statuses.
Like the pragmatists, the modern linguists who have defined pragmatics consider an utterance’s meaning to be its effect in the speaker’s intended audience. This includes the audience’s expectations, expectations of what the utterance might do, and possible consequences of the utterance for the speakers and listeners. These expectations and consequences are based on the listener’s previous experience with the speaker, as well as his or her understanding of the speaker’s intentions.
The pragmatists also emphasized the function of a belief as an instrument in the direction of behavior. They considered ideas to be like instruments that were useful, valuable, or even essential in the molding of human experience.
A major framework of pragmatics is relevance theory, which was developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance theory posits that every utterance conveys enough relevant information to make it worthwhile for the addressee’s effort to process the speaker’s intention.
This approach to language is used in therapy for autism spectrum disorders and other communication impairments. Educators, speech pathologists and other interventionists teach children with autism spectrum disorders social pragmatic skills to improve their verbal and non-verbal communication. Research has shown that teaching these communication skills can have a positive impact on a child’s quality of life.
A related concept is pragmatic marketing, which is a philosophy that emphasizes the importance of creating and marketing products based on what customers want to buy. This type of marketing is often compared to agile software development, in which the product is created based on customer feedback and re-adapted until the final result emerges.