The Importance of Pragmatics

Pragmatic is a subfield of language study that deals with how people use words in context. It is different from other areas of linguistics such as semantics, syntax, and semiotics because it considers how meaning is derived not only by the words we choose, but also by our cultural and social expectations and the situations in which we use them.

The term pragmatic is a compound word formed from the Latin verb prgm, which means to seek practical results rather than relying on theoretical principles. It is an approach that is common to many fields such as business, psychology, and medicine. Pragmatic people are able to see how something will actually work in practice and prefer practical solutions over theoretical ideals that might never come about.

People tend to associate pragmatics with other areas of linguistics such as semantics, grammar, and semiotics. However, those terms have very specific definitions. Semantics involves the rules determining the literal linguistic meanings of expressions; syntax is concerned with how we combine words to form sentences that have particular meanings; and semiotics explores the signs we use to convey our ideas and intentions. Pragmatics, on the other hand, is concerned with how we use language in specific contexts, the intention behind our utterances, and the ways we interpret others’ utterances based on our understanding of their cultural and social context.

It is important for learners to understand pragmatics because it relates to how we communicate with one another in real life. It is a large part of what makes us human and what allows us to interact with our friends, coworkers, and family members. Explicitly teaching pragmatics to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and other speech and language disorders, can have a significant impact on their ability to participate in conversations and develop friendships.

Several different theories of pragmatics exist, but most are based on the idea that context is the key to understanding language usage. Consider the following example: “My daughter says she is going to make me fat by eating too many cookies. That is the literal meaning of her statement. But if I know she is referring to her friend, who is a bit overweight, then I can infer she really means she wants her to look at her watch and get away from the conversation.”

A good way to think of pragmatics is as meaning minus semantics and grammar, according to Frank Brisard. Other scholars may include the contributions that morphology, prosody, and lexical factors make to meaning as well, but they all center around the fact that meaning is heavily dependent on contextual considerations. In other words, we can understand most of what people mean when they say things if we are familiar with their culture and the situation in which they are speaking. Without that knowledge, we would be at a loss for comprehension. The philosophies of pragmatism and sociolinguistics help inform pragmatic theory as well. These philosophies are often used to guide the development of pragmatic intervention programs.