What is Pragmatic?

Pragmatic focuses on meaning in context, and it’s one of the four main branches of linguistics (the others being semantics, syntax, and semiotics). While semantics looks at rules that determine the literal linguistic meaning of words, pragmatics is concerned with the real-world interpretation of those words. As such, pragmatics examines issues like turn-taking conventions, how to politely hedge a request, or the social and contextual forces that affect ambiguity in conversation.

The term “pragmatic” is often confused with lexicology or grammar, but the distinction is crucial: Semantics and lexicology look at the word itself and its formal properties; grammatics examines how words are put together into sentences to make specific meanings; and pragmatics deals with the meaning of language in a conversational context. It’s this last branch of linguistics that’s most relevant to our conversation here today.

Semantics, Syntax, and Pragmatics: What’s the Difference?

The big distinction between semantics and pragmatics is that semantics focuses on the literal meaning of individual words, while pragmatics looks at what those words mean in a particular context. A related concept is that of utterance-bound content versus message-bound content, which refers to the fact that semantics and syntax look at a phrase as it’s being uttered, while pragmatics examines how a speaker uses a given utterance in a specific conversational situation.

This explains why a sentence like “I think you’ll find it easy to get along with Mary” has different implications than the same statement made in a meeting between two colleagues: Despite the identical content of the utterances, the second is more likely to be true, as the speakers are in a familiar and well-understood conversational setting.

Aside from context, other factors that influence pragmatics are the stance the speaker is taking in a conversation and the audience they’re speaking to. In addition, different cultures may have unique pragmatics, causing a single utterance to have multiple meanings in a given context.

Another important pragmatic principle is the Gricean Maxims, which are a set of four general rules that seem to apply across many languages and situations: Be concise. Say only what you mean; don’t try to be clever or witty, and avoid overusing vague and confusing vocabulary. Be respectful, and don’t attack or insult other people. Finally, be cooperative and help other people to understand you as much as possible.

These are just a few examples of how pragmatics intersects with the world of language, and it’s this kind of knowledge that helps us figure out why people don’t always say what they mean. It’s also what allows us to politely hedge a request, cleverly read between the lines, or navigate the ambiguities of our everyday conversations. If you want to learn more about the science behind how we communicate with each other, sign up for a Pragmatic Works hackathon. We’ll pair you with a mentor who will train you on the tools and best practices of our platform, and then spend a day or two applying that training with you to build your own prototype.