What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of language from the perspective of its users. Unlike semantics, which studies the meaning that grammar and vocabulary impart, pragmatics considers the social context in which words are used and how they may influence meaning.

While semantics is the oldest of all linguistic frameworks, pragmatics is fairly new as a scholarly field. As a result, it is still evolving and changing. As a result, there are many different definitions of pragmatics, but one that I find helpful is the one from David Crystal: “Pragmatics studies speakers’ communicative intentions, the uses of language that require such intentions, and the strategies that hearers employ to determine what these intentions and acts are, so that they can understand them” (Davies 1991).

The primary difference between semantics and pragmatics is that while semantics concerns itself with the relationship between sentences and their propositions, pragmatics focuses on the relationship between the speakers and the listeners in the context in which the sentence is uttered. It also takes into account the fact that not all utterances have the same meaning.

Because of this, pragmatics is primarily concerned with implied rather than explicit meaning. It is also concerned with the ways that people infer and interpret meaning from other speakers, namely their nonverbal and contextual cues.

It is the study of how we use language to interact with each other and how our interaction affects the meaning of the words we say. It is the study of the underlying assumptions and motivations that are involved in our communication, including what we assume the other person knows and expects. It also includes what we assume the other person is trying to achieve in the interaction, as well as the effect that our communication has on others.

The concept of pragmatics is rooted in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. Its development was greatly influenced by the work of philosophers Charles Sanders Pierce and John Dewey, as well as by anthropologists George Herbert Mead and William James.

There are several theories of pragmatics, including relevance theory and conversational implicature. Relevance theory, which Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson first developed, posits that every utterance conveys enough relevant information to make it worth the addressee’s effort to process it. Conversational implicature is a related theory that relies on the assumption that a speaker and listener are cooperating in an attempt to communicate something.

One of the most important factors in establishing strong social pragmatics is establishing eye contact. Children who have difficulty establishing eye contact are more likely to have breakdowns in their communication skills that can last throughout their lives and impact their social and career success. Fortunately, there are many simple techniques that parents can do with their infants to help them build this important skill, such as making silly faces and sounds, singing to them, and playing games like peek-a-boo.