Pragmatic: What it is, and What it isn’t

Pragmatic: What it is, and what it isn’t

The term “pragmatic” describes a long-term character attribute — a disposition or the way you approach life and work. It’s also the name of a linguistic discipline that studies how language is used in conversation and in human interaction, and it’s important to understanding people and their interactions. It is often confused with the terms semantics and syntax, but it’s different: semantics studies the meaning of words, while pragmatics focuses on the subtle movements, gestures, body language, and tone of voice that accompany the words we speak.

It’s not unusual to find yourself in a situation where a friend or co-worker has a point of view that differs from your own. Whether it’s about politics, religion, or their favorite TV show, you might disagree with them but find that your disagreement isn’t really an argument. That’s because arguments usually revolve around the semantics of a topic, but pragmatics looks at the social context in which the topics are discussed and how people interpret those semantics.

Rather than arguing over who is right, the more pragmatic approach is to determine how a disagreement will be resolved. That’s the essence of pragmatics: understanding how a given situation and its participants influence language use and communication norms. One of the main frameworks for pragmatics is Grice’s theory of implicature, which posits that every utterance conveys implicitly what it intends to communicate. Another major pragmatics framework is relevance theory, which was developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. This theory, based on Grice’s ideas about implicature, suggests that listeners track syntactic and semantic clues to understand the relevance of an utterance.

Another key tenet of pragmatics is fallibilism, which says that nothing we think or know can be considered absolutely certain or incorrigible. This includes even the most impressive scientific theories like Euclidean geometry or Newtonian physics, which have needed to be revised in the face of new evidence and experiences. That’s because, as the pragmatists would say, our knowledge of the world is limited and constantly changing. It’s a perspective that has made pragmatism popular with scientists, lawyers, and others who need to take into account the limitations of their own knowledge when making decisions. It’s an outlook that has helped many people get through the rough patches in their lives.