What Is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is a field of study that examines the use and meaning of language in specific contexts. It differs from other areas of linguistic study, such as semantics, syntax, and semiotics. The study of pragmatics examines the non-literal aspects of linguistic expressions and how the physical or social context in which they are used determines their meaning. It is an important topic to consider when teaching English, especially considering that cultures have different views of acceptable language behavior.

In a classroom, teachers can teach pragmatics by providing activities that allow students to practice using language in different situations. For example, in the Forum article “Pragmatic Activities for the Speaking Classroom,” Joseph Siegel describes an activity in which students are given a scenario in which they must make a request and decide how to respond. The teacher asks questions to help students understand the different pragmatic implications of their choices.

While the study of pragmatics is relatively new, many theories in this area of linguistics have emerged. Some of the key theories revolve around the idea that there is a sort of boundary between semantics and pragmatics. Semantics focuses on the literal meaning of words and grammar, while pragmatics takes into consideration inferred meanings in the context of the speaker and the listener.

These ideas are largely based on the work of philosophers Charles Sanders Pierce and John Dewey, who wrote about pragmatics in 1870. The pragmatics that they described was the application of a set of principles called Grice’s maxims to the use and understanding of speech. These maxims centered around politeness and fairness in interpersonal communication.

For instance, the principle of relevance states that speakers should be aware of the intentions of those listening to their communication and try to convey only that which is relevant to the listener. This concept of contextual appropriateness is a key aspect of pragmatics that distinguishes it from other linguistic frameworks.

Another theory in the field of pragmatics relates to the role of evidential markers, which are a group of grammatical features that indicate a speaker’s level of confidence in the truth of an utterance. These markers can also show how a speaker acquired the information.

Other pragmatic theories include those that look at the way in which the meaning of a sentence depends on its context and the extra-linguistic factors that may affect it. The distinction between linguistic context and contextual extra-linguistic factors is an important aspect of pragmatics because it allows researchers to compare different approaches to pragmatic analysis.

One of the most interesting applications of pragmatics is in studying people with autism. The research of Lara Hochstein, Alan Bale, and David Barner has shown that some high-functioning adolescents with ASD are able to use context to constrain their pragmatic inferences. This is a great development for the study of ASD, because it suggests that there are some subgroups within the population that can function in an appropriate manner in a variety of social interactions.