What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of how people use words in conversation and other communication activities. It is often referred to as the study of how “people do things with words.” It is a subfield of linguistics and a branch of philosophy. It includes theories of how figurative language (metaphor, idiom, and irony) is understood and used as well as the theory of how conversational implicatures are managed.

The concept of pragmatics is important for understanding how a person might act in certain situations and what meaning they might have for others when communicating with them. A pragmatic person would be one who could see the possible outcomes of a situation and choose to act accordingly, rather than relying on traditional rules or moral beliefs in deciding how to behave. For example, a person who is pragmatic might recognize that traffic can be bad on the way to the airport and choose to leave early, or they may realize that a new at home jowl lifting method will not work and decide to continue to visit a plastic surgeon instead.

Experimental pragmatics emerged back in the 1970s when researchers in developmental psychology, psycholinguistics, and cognitive neuroscience began to study how people understand language in context. This was a radical departure from previous emphasis in psycholinguistics on the lexical and syntactic processes that constitute word meaning. At the time, many critics within linguistics and psychology argued that it was not possible to study pragmatics scientifically.

Since then, experimental pragmatics has become a vibrant field of research with numerous methodologies for studying human language processing and comprehension. Some of the most powerful techniques involve measuring how long it takes people to interpret a specific kind of pragmatic meaning, such as the semantic, literal meaning of a phrase or sentence. Other methods, such as analyzing eye movements while participants read a text or listen to a talk, offer insight into how the semantics and syntax of a language are processed in real-time.

While experimental pragmatics has a long history of study, its results are not always consistent or predictable. This is largely because of the complex nature of human language processing and the fact that people are often influenced by their environment and the specific task they are performing during a study. In the case of experimental pragmatics, task demands can greatly influence people’s ability to interpret a particular expression or utterance, as well as the theoretical interpretations scholars offer for their findings.

For example, there is an enormous amount of research that indicates people quickly understand a figurative utterance such as a metaphor, idiom, or an irony, and that these pragmatic understandings are often facilitated by the contextual cues provided by the figurative expression or the discourse in which it occurs. Other studies, however, suggest that pragmatics only plays a limited role in the initial interpretation of figurative language and that other kinds of linguistic and conversational understanding are more dependent on lexical and syntactic processing.