What is Pragmatic Linguistics?

Pragmatic is the branch of linguistics that studies language use in context. It is distinguished from semantics, syntax and semiotics which study the rules that determine literal linguistic meaning, how words are combined to form sentences with specific meaning, and how the physical or social context influences understanding of those expressions.

Pragmatism emerged from informal discussions among Harvard-educated men in the Metaphysical Club during the 1870s. Its first self-conscious proponents included proto-positivist Chauncey Wright, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the logician Charles Sanders Peirce, and psychologist and moral philosopher William James. Their work drew on a wide range of disciplines including mathematics, science, philosophy, logic, psychology and ethics.

The pragmatist approach to inquiry is a practical, contextually grounded method for exploring human reality that avoids metaphysical debates about truth and knowledge and instead focuses on understanding how people do things. By examining what actually happens, rather than how something should or ought to be, researchers can uncover complex themes and issues that may not be readily apparent in formal documentation or rhetoric.

In its most traditional form, pragmatics is about understanding what the speakers really mean in a particular situation and how they use language to accomplish this goal. This means being able to politely hedge a request, cleverly read between the lines, or negotiate turn-taking norms in conversation. It also means being able to understand ambiguity and navigate ad-hoc linguistic conventions.

To accomplish these goals, a pragmatic theorist must examine not just near-side linguistic features such as what someone says or how they say it, but far-side linguistic features like what they do after they say it. This includes not only the actions a speaker takes, but what they do with that information afterwards such as how they negotiate ambiguity and turn-taking rules in the process of negotiating their meaning.

A good example of a pragmatic interpretation is when you read a newspaper headline and see two possible interpretations. In one interpretation, a sentient tree stumbled upon a stolen painting. In the other interpretation, a man was arrested for breaking into a museum to steal the painting.

While we sometimes confuse pragmatics with other areas of linguistic study such as semantics, syntax and semiotics, the three are distinct. Semantics is concerned with the rules that determine literal linguistic meaning; syntax is the way we combine words to form phrases and sentences with specific meaning; and semiotics is the way we interpret signs and symbols. Pragmatics, on the other hand, is concerned with a more abstract notion of meaning, the way it changes over time and in different contexts, and how we use language to achieve our goals. This distinction is critical in creating pragmatic theories that are robust and generalizable across languages and cultures. It is also important in experimental pragmatic studies that we not strip away the task demands inherent in each experiment when developing our theories of pragmatics, as this can lead to ad hoc and implausible explanations for the findings.