What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of the practical aspects of human language, what speakers mean when they use words and how they negotiate meaning with each other. It goes beyond the linguistic expressions themselves and looks at their context of use, taking into account things such as politeness, ambiguity, vagueness, indexicals and demonstratives, and presupposition. It also studies how these linguistic expressions interact with other elements of discourse and speech acts.

In contrast to semantics, which is concerned with the rules that determine the literal linguistic meaning of expressions, and syntax, which studies how sentences are put together, pragmatics focuses on what is actually done with them. It is this interaction that makes them meaningful, and it is this that makes communication functional.

The idea of pragmatism has been embraced by scholars in different disciplines, such as philosophy, linguistics and psychology. Its broad philosophical approach is centered on the idea that reality is a flexible, constantly changing phenomenon that can be molded by the individual’s purposes and interests. Its methodological aspect is an approach to knowledge and action that is critical of metaphysical and moral theories that impose fixed values on change and action.

For example, a speaker’s utterance, “I have two sons,” is a truthful statement in the sense that the speaker actually has two sons. However, the implication of the statement is that the speaker would prefer to have more sons. The implication is what makes the statement pragmatically true.

A central concern of pragmatics is how to distinguish the linguistically encoded (“semantic”) and contextually derived (“pragmatic”) aspects of meaning in an utterance. This distinction is important because it allows for the development of a theory of meaning that goes beyond purely linguistic expressions to include what the speaker is trying to communicate. It also provides a way to distinguish pragmatics from semantics and semiotics, which are both areas of linguistic study that have a more static nature.

One of the major frameworks for pragmatics is Grice’s idea of implicature, whereby an utterance contains more than just the straightforward meaning of its lexical expressions. Another framework is relevance theory, which was first proposed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. It holds that the information that is relevant for determining the meaning of an utterance depends on its relationship to the addressee’s current context, intentions and previous knowledge about the speaker.

Pragmatics is often considered to be the nexus of various disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, sociology and literature, because of its interest in human behavior. It is also closely related to cognitive science, which tries to understand how humans learn and think.

Recent research on pragmatics has shown that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have difficulty understanding the social and communicative implications of what other people say to them. However, it has been challenging to identify clear associations between the development of specific pragmatic phenomena and well-defined aspects of linguistic or cognitive performance in ASD. The current issue of the journal “Pragmatics” features a number of articles that seek to make this connection in a more robust manner.