What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of how context contributes to meaning. It’s a subfield of linguistics, the science that studies human language and communication. People often associate it with other areas of linguistic study, such as semantics, syntax, and semiotics. But those are actually different areas of study. Semantics involves rule systems that determine the literal linguistic meanings of expressions; syntax describes how those expressions combine to form sentences; and semiotics is concerned with the use and interpretation of signs and symbols. Pragmatics, on the other hand, investigates how meaning is conveyed through a physical or social context.

The concept of pragmatics dates back to antiquity, when rhetoric was one of the liberal arts. The modern idea of pragmatics, however, arose in the 1800s when linguists studying the philosophy of language agreed on a point of view that language must be studied in its context of dialogue and life, and that language itself is a kind of human action. Pragmatics is now an important part of linguistic research, and linguists who specialize in pragmatics are called pragmaticians.

Semantics, Syntax, and Pragmatics

Pragmatism, a philosophical movement that originated in the mid-1800s, is also related to the study of pragmatics. It argues that the only true reality is our perception of the world around us, and that everything else is a product of our mind and imagination. It has many followers in the social sciences and humanities, but is sometimes criticized as pessimistic and self-serving.

In linguistics, the field of pragmatics is sometimes considered the outermost layer of a “spiral” model of the major levels of linguistic structure: semantics, syntax, and phonology are the inner two layers; and phonetics and grammar are the base of the spiral. In practice, pragmatics is the most important layer because it deals with human communication, and it addresses how our knowledge of a culture and our own individual experiences impact the way we communicate in that language.

In terms of specific types of pragmatic phenomena, the classic pragmatics period was characterized by the work of Kaplan and Grice. Their idea of relevance was a defining characteristic of the era. This theory was an attempt to unify the two main roots of pragmatics by locating near-side pragmatics on the same level as formal semantics and addressing issues such as reference resolution, ambiguity resolution, conversational implicature, and management of omission and overtness in an utterance.