What is Pragmatics? - Introduction to Linguistics - The Scientific Study of Language

What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of how context affects meaning, such as how sentences are interpreted in certain situations (or the interpretation of linguistic meaning in context). Linguistic context is discourse that precedes a sentence to be interpreted and situational context is knowledge about the world. In the following sentences, the kids have eaten already and surprisingly, they are hungry, the linguistic context helps to interpret the second sentence depending on what the first sentence says. The situational context helps to interpret the second sentence because it is common knowledge that humans are not usually hungry after eating.

Maxims of Conversation
Grice’s maxims for conversation are conventions of speech such as the maxim of quantity that states a speaker should be as informative as is required and neither more nor less. The maxim of relevance essentially states a speaker should stay on the topic, and the maxim of manner states the speaker should be brief and orderly, and avoid ambiguity. The fourth maxim, the maxim of quality, states that a speaker should not lie or make any unsupported claims.

Performative Sentences
In these types of sentences, the speaker is the subject who, by uttering the sentence, is accomplishing some additional action, such as daring, resigning, or nominating. These sentences are all affirmative, declarative and in the present tense. An informal test to see whether a sentence is performative or not is to insert the words I hereby before the verb. I hereby challenge you to a match or I hereby fine you $500 are both performative, but I hereby know that girl is not. Other performative verbs are bet, promise, pronounce, bequeath, swear, testify, and dismiss.

These are implicit assumptions required to make a sentence meaningful. Sentences that contain presuppositions are not allowed in court because accepting the validity of the statement mean accepting the presuppositions as well. Have you stopped stealing cars? is not admissible in court because no matter how the defendant answers, the presupposition that he steals cars already will be acknowledged. Have you stopped smoking? implies that you smoke already, and Would you like another piece? implies that you’ve already had one piece.

Deixis is reference to a person, object, or event which relies on the situational context. First and second person pronouns such as my, mine, you, your, yours, we, ours and us are always deictic because their reference is entirely dependent on context. Demonstrative articles like this, that, these and those and expressions of time and place are always deictic as well. In order to understand what specific times or places such expressions refer to, we also need to know when or where the utterance was said. If someone says “I’m over here!” you would need to know who “I” referred to, as well as where “here” is. Deixis marks one of the boundaries of semantics and pragmatics.

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Dr. Jennifer Wagner

PhD in Applied Linguistics, ESL/French teacher, author of two French books, and helping others to learn languages online at ielanguages.com.