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Definition of Pragmatics

How do we interpret the meaning of a particular sentence? The answer might seem straightforward: Every sentence is a combination of words in a particular order, so the meaning is simply found from the definition of each word and the order they are combined in. It turns out, however, that language is a lot more complicated than that. The meaning of a sentence can depend on other factors besides the words themselves: Meaning is shaped by contextual factors, such as the situation in which a sentence is used or the social rules that tell us how we should use language. These additional unspoken factors can change what a sentence means or give it additional meaning. The study of these contextual factors and the way they create meaning is called pragmatics. Pragmatics falls under the broader field of linguistics, which is the scientific study of how language works and how people use it.

Origin of Pragmatics

Pragmatics refers to the field that studies pragmatic language: The definition of pragmatic language is language that can only be understood in terms of aspects of the situation in which it is used. The name of the field comes from the word pragmatic, which is itself derived from the Latin word pragmaticus. The original Latin term refers to a good lawyer or businessperson; in English, a pragmatic person is one who thinks practically about the world around them. The term pragmatics was first used in the 1930s, and it originally referred to a field of philosophy that focused on language use, but later the term also came to refer to the subfield of linguistics that is our focus here.

The linguistic field of pragmatics is generally understood to have originated in the 1960s with the work of two important philosophers: J. L. Austin and H. P. Grice. Austin wrote about the ways that people use language and the acts that language allows people to perform. Grice wrote about the unspoken rules that change the meaning of the language we use and the ways that these rules give sentences meaning beyond the literal or straightforward.

There are various subfields within the field of pragmatics. One of these is historical pragmatics, which studies historical uses of language and their context, as well as the relationship between pragmatics and language change. The study of the way that language changes over some span of time is called diachronic linguistics, whereas synchronic linguistics focuses on some specific time period.

Pragmatic Rules

When we use language, we follow all sorts of rules, some of which we think about and some of which we don’t. For example, rules of grammar tell us what order words go in, or whether a verb should be in the present or past tense. Rules like these help us understand the meaning of a particular sentence. We also use pragmatic rules to understand meaning: These are rules about how we should use language and how this use changes depending on the situation we are in. One example of a pragmatic rule is H. P. Grice’s Cooperative Principle, which essentially says that when people are having a conversation, they should use language in a way that is most helpful to the other people in that conversation. This general principle leads to several more specific rules: For instance, if one person is informing another person about something, the amount of information they give should be based on whatever is appropriate in the particular conversation. Suppose a teacher asks their class, ”Does anyone have any thoughts on the book we read?” If a student responded, ”Yes, I do,” and then said nothing more, it would seem a little strange. This is because they have broken a pragmatic rule about the amount of information they should give: The teacher clearly wanted students to explain their thoughts, but the student only stated that they had thoughts and did not elaborate.

Pragmatic rules don’t just tell us how we should use language; they also allow us to make inferences about the unspoken meanings contained within particular statements. When a statement has these unspoken meanings that have to be decoded based on pragmatic rules, it is an example of conversational implicature. For example, another of Grice’s rules is that people should only state something if it is relevant to whatever conversation they are having. Suppose a teacher asks, ”Did you do your homework last night?” and a student responds, ”I had baseball practice.” Pragmatic rules allow the teacher to conclude that the baseball practice prevented the student from doing their homework: The student didn’t explicitly state that, but since they would only make a statement that was relevant, the baseball practice must be relevant to the question of whether they did their homework. In this way, pragmatic rules allow us to understand implied meaning, meaning that is not literally stated but that can be inferred based on assumptions that everyone follows certain pragmatic rules. To give another example, suppose that an airport has a sign that says ”Luggage must be carried on the escalator.” Interpreted literally, this would mean that everyone using the escalator has to bring luggage. However, we can infer that the sign is only meant to apply to people who are taking luggage onto the escalator, and it is telling them they have to carry that luggage. If a person does not have luggage, they are still allowed to use the escalator.

Pragmatic rules are also at work when we interpret figurative language, such as metaphor or hyperbole. If someone says ”The test was a breeze” or ”I have a million hours of homework to do,” their statements would be false if interpreted literally: The test was not actually a light wind, and they do not actually have a million hours of homework to do. However, since we assume they are following the pragmatic rule that people should make true statements, we can infer that they are only speaking figuratively: The test was easy, and they have a lot of homework.

In addition to pragmatic rules about how people should use language in conversations, there are also pragmatic rules about speech acts, or actions that we use language to do. One example of a speech act is a promise: When a person makes a promise, their use of language is itself an action. In the case of a speech act, pragmatic rules are the social rules that determine how language can be used to perform that act: For example, they tell us how to make a promise, what sorts of statements count as promises, and what it means to make a promise.

Types of Pragmatics

There are two primary ways in which pragmatic factors can affect the meaning of a statement, and these two ways lead to two different aspects of pragmatics: far-side and near-side.

Far-Side Pragmatics

In cases of far-side pragmatics, pragmatic rules add extra meaning to an expression in addition to its literal or straightforward meaning. All of the examples of conversational implicature discussed so far are cases of far-side pragmatics because they involve making inferences about additional unspoken or hidden meaning. Suppose one person asks, ”Where did you put my book?” and another responds, ”I was just reading in the kitchen.” The literal meaning of this second statement is just that the second person was reading in the kitchen: They did not specifically say that they were reading the first person’s book, or that they left it in the kitchen. However, the pragmatic rule of relevance allows us to infer that the person is giving an answer to the question, and therefore that they must be indicating where they put the book. This is a case of far-side pragmatics because the implied meaning is added on to the literal meaning: The speaker says that they were reading in the kitchen, but they really mean that they left the other person’s book in the kitchen.

Near-Side Pragmatics

In cases of near-side pragmatics, on the other hand, pragmatic rules affect the literal meaning of an expression. For example, one of the issues of near-side pragmatics is ambiguity or vagueness. Sometimes it is not completely clear what someone means because they use a word with multiple meanings: The sentence ”I saw a star” could mean ”I saw a bright object in the sky” or ”I saw a famous person.” This double meaning, or ambiguity, means that we have to use context and pragmatic rules to figure out what kind of star the speaker is talking about. This is a case of near-side pragmatics because we need pragmatic rules to understand even the literal meaning of the sentence, rather than to grasp some added unspoken meaning. Another case of near-side pragmatics would be in the sentence, ”I like that hat.” We can’t determine the literal meaning of the sentence unless we know who ”I” is and which hat ”that” is: Both of those will depend on aspects of the context in which the sentence is used. Near-side pragmatic rules are necessary in order to understand what the sentence literally means.

One possible meaning of the ambiguous word star.

Star is ambiguous because it has multiple possible meanings, one of which refers to objects in the sky.

A second possible meaning of the ambiguous word star.

Star is ambiguous because it can also refer to a famous person, such as John Legend.

Pragmatics vs. Semantics

Pragmatics and semantics are two different but related subfields of linguistics that both focus on the relationship between language and meaning. While pragmatics studies the way that aspects of context affect the meaning of words and sentences, semantics studies the literal or straightforward meaning of words and sentences, separate from any particular situation they are used in. Pragmatics and semantics are closely linked because we cannot apply pragmatic rules unless we have some semantic meaning to work with: When we make pragmatic inferences about the meaning of a statement, we are combining the literal semantic meaning of the sentence with additional facts about the context in which it was used. It is only by combining these two disciplines that we can understand language and its use.

Pragmatics Examples

We often use pragmatics to interpret everyday speech. Here are some examples of pragmatics in conversation:

  • ”Does the team play Monday?” ”They play Tuesday.” The response doesn’t literally answer the question of whether the team plays Monday, but we can infer that the team does not play Monday, or else the response wouldn’t be informative.
  • ”This book isn’t great.” Someone might say this when they actually mean the book is bad: They don’t literally say that the book is bad, but we can infer their meaning.
  • ”I am going to the store today.” Pragmatic rules are necessary to understand who “I” is, which store in particular is meant, and when “today” is.
  • ”I name my dog Spot.” In addition to making a statement, this sentence allows the person stating it to give their dog a name, which is a speech act. Speech acts depend upon pragmatic rules about, for example, how one goes about naming a dog.
  • ”How are you?” ”I’m fine.” Based on context, we can infer that the first person doesn’t actually want to know everything about the second; they just want to hear a standard response.

Pragmatics is also relevant to interpreting works of literature. Here are two examples from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar:

  • ”Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” Although the sentence literally asks for people to give up their ears, we can infer based on pragmatic rules that it is actually figurative: The speaker wants the audience to listen to their words.
  • ”He was my friend, faithful and just to me: / But Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honorable man.” Here, Antony literally says that Brutus is honorable, but based on the context and pragmatic rules we can infer that Antony is actually being ironic: He wants those listening to conclude that Brutus is not honorable.


Pragmatics examines how the meaning of a sentence can be shaped or built upon by factors beyond the words themselves, factors such as the situation where the sentence is used, the social rules in place at the time, and the assumed attitude of the person using the sentence. Pragmatics is a sub-field of linguistics, which studies language and language use. The field of pragmatics originated largely from the work of J. L. Austin and H. P. Grice in the middle of the twentieth century. When we use language, we generally follow certain rules about what we should say and when we should say it. The presumption that everyone follows these rules can help us understand the literal meaning of a sentence and resolve ambiguity, in the case of near-side pragmatics, or help us decode a sentence’s additional or hidden meaning, in the case of far-side pragmatics. When a statement has extra meaning that must be inferred using pragmatics, it is a case of conversational implicature. Pragmatic factors can also determine what speech acts a person uses language to do. Pragmatics is importantly distinguished from but related to semantics, which studies literal or straightforward meaning. Examples of the role of pragmatics in language can be found frequently in everyday speech, as well as in literature.

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