What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatic is a term that means “the way things work.” It’s a concept that can be applied to people, situations and even things like a business model. Pragmatic people tend to focus on what is actually working rather than what could or should be. Applied to learning, pragmatics refers to the ability to communicate ideas and information clearly and concisely. Educators, speech pathologists and other interventionists often teach children with autism spectrum disorder pragmatic skills to help them improve their conversational interaction and social skills.

Linguists use pragmatics to study the relationship between human language and its users. It’s a subfield of linguistics that deals with how context influences the meaning of linguistic expressions. Linguists who specialize in pragmatics are known as pragmaticians. Pragmatics is sometimes compared and contrasted with grammatics (the rules that define word order), semantics and semiotics. However, pragmatics is distinct from each of these areas of study because it focuses on what speakers intend when they speak and the specific context that determines how listeners interpret those intentions.

One of the most fundamental aspects of pragmatics is what’s called “managing the flow of reference.” When you hear someone say something such as, “John told me to greet you,” you’re likely to track syntactic and semantic clues to understand that John is the person who commanded the speaker to greet you. Another key principle is that a speaker’s intention may be implied, but not explicitly stated. Taking these principles into account can be quite tricky, since a person may know what they mean when they speak but still find it difficult to express those ideas in an easily recognizable manner.

In practice, pragmatics deals with a wide range of topics, from how people make use of idioms to the ways in which nonverbal communication influences the meaning of an utterance. It also studies the way in which language changes depending on the cultural and social context.

A pragmatic approach to marketing emphasizes matching a product’s capabilities with customers’ needs during development, then truly launching a product that meets those expectations. For example, a company that takes a pragmatic approach would never release a new product before first interviewing customers and testing prototypes to ensure the product is the one they want.

A pragmatic approach to ethics and morality can be dangerous when it is used to justify one’s own personal preferences to the detriment of others. It can also lead to false conclusions because it doesn’t provide a test for truth, and it’s easily confused with relativism.