What Is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of how people use language in social contexts. It is related to but distinct from other areas of linguistic study, including semantics, syntax, and semiotics. Specifically, pragmatics focuses on how the physical or social contexts of an expression influence how it is used by speakers and listeners. This makes it an important area for study of human communication.

The term pragmatic is derived from the Greek word pragma, meaning “deed” or “practical.” A person described as pragmatic is someone who focuses more on real-world application of ideas and is less concerned with abstract notions. A pragmatic person, for example, might not expect to receive a unicorn at their birthday party because they know that unicorns are rare creatures that have never been seen by humans.

While there are many different approaches to the study of pragmatics, the field is broadly defined by a set of theoretical concerns and methodologies. For example, pragmatist researchers often seek to understand how specific participants interpret and apply their own language, and how this affects outcomes (Goldkuhl 2012). As such, they are more interested in creating knowledge that is useful and instrumental in producing desired or anticipated results.

A key aspect of pragmatism is the premise that knowledge is a social construction, which means that it is always influenced by and rooted in our experiences as human beings. This entails the rejection of the idea that we can access reality by using one particular scientific method alone (Maxcy 2003). Instead, pragmatist scholars believe that all knowledge is constructed by our collective, individual, and historical experiences and is therefore flawed and incomplete.

This premise is particularly pertinent to experimental pragmatics, as it implies that any empirical findings in this field must be taken with caution, given that the research is based on the subjective, individual interpretations of a participant. As such, a researcher must always consider the potential consequences of his or her choices in the design and conduct of an experiment before proceeding with that research.

The majority of experimental pragmatics studies are based on a theory called relevance theory, which is inspired by Grice’s ideas about conversational implicature and suggests that people infer the full meaning of a speaker’s utterance from clues available in the immediate environment. This is in contrast to other theories of language, such as generative grammar, which is based on the theory that there are some innate rules that determine how words are interpreted by listeners.

However, it is important to note that a major challenge facing experimental pragmatics is the huge variation in results between studies. This is partially due to a broader concern within psychology, known as the replication crisis, whereby some studies fail to replicate the results of other studies. In light of these issues, a crucial task for researchers in the field of experimental pragmatics is to develop rigorous statistical methods that allow for more accurate and reliable comparisons between studies.