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What Is Pragmatics?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 23, 2024
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Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics which studies the meaning of language in its physical, epistemic, linguistic, and social contexts. A person can make a direct speech act, in which what is said is exactly what is meant, or an indirect speech act, where the meaning differs from the actual words spoken. These differences are typically automatically understood because of the context.

The four aspects of context can all affect pragmatics. Physical context refers to the setting of a conversation, such as a library, football field, or bedroom. Epistemic context refers to the background knowledge shared by a speaker and his or her audience, such as who is president or the basic rules of basketball. The information that has already been shared in the discussion is known as linguistic context, including all antecedents, topics of conversation, and intonations. A sarcastic, sad, or joking tone of voice can easily change the meaning of a sentence.

Social context is the term for the relationship between a speaker and an audience. A man will communicate differently when he is with his boss than with his friends. Neighbors sharing their summer vacation pictures, a teacher showing a documentary to his or her students, and teenagers watching a movie at a theater are all examples of different social contexts. Each situation would call for different styles of communication.

The speech act theory, a subfield of pragmatics, studies the two different categories of speech, known as direct and indirect. Direct speech acts are sentences in which the literal meaning and the understood meaning are the same. The three types of direct speech acts are declarative, interrogative, and imperative.

Indirect speech acts are sentences where the literal and understood meanings differ. This can occur for many reasons, such as entailment, implicature, or felicity conditions. Entailment refers to a sentence that, by its very nature, requires another sentence to be true. A sentence that implies another fact but does not require it is known as an implicature. Felicity conditions are the context in which sentences make sense.

One of the founders of the field of pragmatics, Herbert Paul Grice, developed the Gricean Maxims to help avoid the confusion that can so easily occur through implicature, ignoring felicity conditions and other means. The Gricean Maxims are a set of instructions for cooperating in conversation, such as being relevant and avoiding ambiguity. People sometimes deliberately ignore these maxims to achieve effects such as sarcasm.

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Discussion Comments

By anon224530 — On Oct 23, 2011

The four aspects of context were specified by Louise Cummings in "Pragmatics: a multidisciplinary perspective" (2005)

By croydon — On Jul 16, 2011

@bythewell - The thing is, I think a lot of those rules are so relative as to be meaningless, except as common sense. If you really love talking, then you will get value out of talking about random things and consider it quality talk.

If your partner hates random chatter, then he won't think it is quality, will he?

The same thing with the appropriate manner. An old fashioned person will expect respect at all times, but a more modern person might not consider calling someone ma'am all that respectful.

I think as long as you do your best to not offend when you don't have a good reason, that's the best set of rules to go by.

By bythewell — On Jul 15, 2011

In case you're wondering, the four main principles in the Gricean Maxims are that you should make all your speech relevant, of quality, of the right quantity and with the appropriate manner.

Basically, it comes down to "If you can't say something nice (relevant), don't say anything at all".

It gets more complicated when you get into what quality speech actually is. Is it truth? Is it entertainment? and so on.

And to some extent I think the rules are quite relative to different people. But, that doesn't mean they don't have value.

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