What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is a field of language study that deals with how we communicate with each other. It studies what speakers intend to convey when they use certain words in particular contexts and the strategies that they employ to achieve their communicative goals. It also tries to determine how those intentions are communicated through the structure of sentences, the way that words are combined and the linguistic conventions that govern their usage.

The discipline of pragmatics is usually contrasted with semantics, which is the study of the conventional rules that define meaning for expressions. The common picture of communication is that a speaker encodes thoughts in words and a listener decodes those words into thoughts, with each person having some level of mastery over the phonological, syntactic and semantic rules of their language that allows them to do this.

Some theorists have characterized semantics as the study of sentences and their grammatical properties, while pragmatics deals with the more interesting contexts in which they occur. Other theorists have argued that there is no sharp division between the two disciplines; that semantics should focus on the content of utterances, while pragmatics concentrates on the speech contexts and situations that give rise to those utterances. In either case, there are two major types of pragmatics problems that have to be solved: resolving ambiguity and determining which propositions a sentence expresses (or may imply).

Resolving ambiguity

If you say something like, ‘I saw the painting next to a tree,’ one interpretation is that the painting was discovered by a tree, while another interpretation is that it was found by humans. This is an example of ambiguity in which the two interpretations are equally valid. To resolve the ambiguity, you can use your knowledge of semantics and pragmatics to figure out which of the two is more likely to be the case.

There are many different ways of going about this, but some theorists have emphasized that it is important to distinguish between ‘near-side’ and ‘far-side’ pragmatics. This means that there are some aspects of a context that are relevant to resolving ambiguity, and other aspects that are not. Some examples of the former are the linguistic context, the previous utterance in the discourse, and extra-linguistic facts that affect the occurrence of an utterance.

Other theorists, such as relevance theorists, argue that there is no need to separate near-side and far-side pragmatics; that the same analysis can be applied to the ambiguous utterance to resolve its ambiguity. This is often called the ‘Gricean approach’ to pragmatics.

Other theorists, such as minimalists and hidden-indexical theorists, do not accept that there is any pragmatically determined element of utterance content that is not triggered by a grammatical feature of the utterance itself. Minimalists and hidden-indexical theorists are often referred to as literalists. Both of these groups try to limit the amount of context-sensitive content that is generated by an utterance, and they both tend to be regarded as being on the ‘near side’ of the pragmatics/semantics divide.