What is Pragmatic?

Pragmatic is a specialized area of linguistics focused on how we use language and what we mean when we say things. Unlike semantics (the meaning of words) or syntax (word order), pragmatics focuses on conversational implicatures–that which is implied but not explicitly stated in an utterance. It would be hard to understand people without the study of pragmatics, and it is often difficult to explain what we mean when we speak.

The term pragmatics has been used in many different ways to describe a wide range of phenomena. Some researchers have made the case that pragmatics is a subset of linguistics, while others have argued that it is a completely independent field. Still others have compared it to philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.

One of the main issues with defining pragmatics is that it tends to overlap with other fields, including the more traditionally defined areas of linguistics and semantics. For example, some pragmatic studies focus on non-literal meanings of words such as metaphoric and ironic meanings. These sorts of interpretations are normally considered to be outside the realm of semantics, but they are part of a wider area of pragmatics known as metasemantics.

Another important issue is the distinction between the near and far side of pragmatics. Near-side pragmatics is concerned with those elements of language that are related to how the utterance is understood by its hearer, such as resolution of ambiguity and vagueness, reference of proper names and indexicals, anaphors, and so forth.

The far side of pragmatics is concerned with those aspects of the utterance that are related to its literal meaning and how the speaker intends it to be taken. The ‘insider-outsider’ distinction and the concept of a ‘natural order’ of meaning are examples of this sort of pragmatic concern.

A good illustration of this sort of difference is the way that a mother might interpret her daughter’s comment about her eating cookies. The daughter might be assuming that the mother is supportive of her comments, but the mother might interpret them as rude and monopolizing her time.

The concept of context is also a key part of pragmatics. Some scholars have tended to split the concept of context into two separate aspects: the ‘linguistic’ context and any extra-linguistic circumstances surrounding an utterance. Other scholars have made more intuitive distinctions, such as the difference between elliptical and anaphoric pronouns, which are normally viewed as being determined by the linguistic context, but which can be altered by other factors. In the latter case, the ‘extra-linguistic’ context might include the speaker’s attitude toward the addressee or other issues that affect a listener’s interpretation. It is a difficult task to define what is and is not included in a discussion of context, and this has led to considerable philosophical debate. For instance, some scholars have argued that the ‘linguistic’ context does not include the speaker’s intention or motivation. In contrast, others have argued that the speaker’s intention is an essential part of understanding an utterance.