Pragmatics is the study of human language and interaction. It looks beyond the literal meaning of an utterance and explores implied meanings, such as figurative language (metaphor, idiom, and irony) and conversational implicature. Pragmatics is a crucial aspect of communication as it allows us to understand what other people are trying to convey to us.

The field of pragmatics is an amalgam of many different strands, each with its own specialized focus: the theory of how one word or sentence can express different meanings in different contexts, owing to semantic ambiguity, indexicality, and so on; the theory of speech acts; the theory of conversational implicature, etc. A major aim of pragmatics is to understand how a person’s intended message is interpreted by the addressee, and how it influences that person’s behavior.

There are a few general trends that mark contemporary pragmatics: those who see it, in the Gricean tradition, as a philosophical project; those who concentrate on its interaction with grammar; and those who take it as an empirical psychological theory of utterance interpretation. There is also a growing tendency for pragmatic studies to use formal techniques from the other disciplines, such as those used in semantics, and to include experimental data of various kinds (e.g., measuring the time it takes to read linguistic expressions that convey different kinds of pragmatic meaning, using techniques such as moving-window or eye-movement methods).

A major problem in pragmatics is the enormous number of variables that are involved. The idioms, figurative language, and pragmatic rules that exist in the real world are highly complex and cannot be reduced to simple rules or tests. The innate complexity of pragmatics makes it difficult to determine exactly what is going on in a given situation, even for expert linguists. This is a problem that pragmatism has struggled to overcome, especially as the field has grown and evolved over the years.

As the field of pragmatics continues to develop, it is important to recognize that there are no definitive answers to its questions. The papers in this special issue suggest that new progress will come from developing precise, theoretically motivated connections between pragmatic mechanisms on the one hand and the semantic and cognitive processes that underlie individual phenomena on the other. This will require a Herculean effort to organize the disparate sets of data that are often studied separately in the literature. The research described in this special issue is an important first step towards that goal. It demonstrates that children are extremely sensitive to the pragmatic principles that govern their linguistic and social competence, and points to several mechanisms by which they acquire these skills. This is an exciting and hopeful development. But it is also clear that there are limits to the contributions that pragmatism can make to understanding language and its social dimensions. It is an exciting field with great potential, but it needs to move beyond its present shackles and reach out to other disciplines, as well as its own.