The Difference Between Pragmatics and Semantics

The term pragmatic is often used to describe someone who considers real world conditions or circumstances when making decisions. The word pragmatic also refers to the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, which emphasizes practical consequences as a key consideration in the determination of meaning, truth, and value.

The study of pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics that focuses on how language is used in a given context, rather than on semantics or grammar. The field is broadly concerned with the notion that a sentence can convey different meanings or propositions in different contexts. The theory of pragmatics explains how this is accomplished through the interaction between the speaker and listener, taking into account the intentions and the purpose of the communication.

One of the problems with the concept of pragmatics is that it is often mistakenly confused with the semantics of a given sentence. Semantics is the branch of linguistics that deals with interpreting the meaning of a given sentence in context, and it attempts to do so by recursively specifying the meaning of the sentence and the truth conditions under which it is true. Pragmatics, on the other hand, is a more general theory of the use of words in conversation, and it includes such theories as speech act theory, indexicality, and the theory of conversational implicature.

As such, it is important to understand the difference between the two fields before considering how they relate. The distinction is somewhat arbitrary, but it is typically defined in terms of the way that a particular utterance resolves reference and expresses a certain proposition. In other words, it is a matter of how the theory of a sentence interacts with the theory of a conversation in order to determine its meaning and relevance to the audience.

There are different theorists who have studied the pragmatics of a given utterance, and it is possible to distinguish what they call ‘near-side’ pragmatics from what they call ‘far-side’ pragmatics. Near-side pragmatics, in particular, tries to explain the nature of the facts that contribute to a hearer’s ability to establish what a speaker is trying to say.

Far-side pragmatics, on the other hand, tends to take a broad view of an utterance and look at its consequences for both speakers and hearers. Relevance theory, for example, seems to fall squarely within far-side pragmatics, and it is probably fair to say that it is responsible for a significant amount of the contemporary emphasis on the extent to which pragmatics ‘intrudes’ into traditional semantic territory. Other examples of far-side pragmatics include the theory of the inferential process, the theory of communicational implicatures, and Bach’s SAS. The distinction between these approaches is sometimes referred to as the ‘classical-pragmatics gap.’ Whether or not it is justified, the pragmatics of an utterance can be understood by considering the way in which these theorists approach the problem.