By Kamil Wiśniewski, Aug. 12th, 2007

Pragmatics is the study of meaning of words, phrases and full sentences, but unlike semantics which deals with the objective meanings of words that can be found in dictionaries, pragmatics is more concerned with the meanings that words in fact convey when they are used, or with intended speaker meaning as it is sometimes referred to. It can be said that pragmatics attempts to analyze how it happens that often more is communicated than said. As frequently the meaning of discourse is context-dependant, pragmatics examines the devices used by language users (ex. deictic expressions, or anaphora) in order to express the desired meaning and how it is perceived.

The interpretation of what meanings the speaker wanted to convey using particular words is often influenced by factors such as the listeners’ assumptions or the context. In pragmatics two types of context can be differentiated: linguistic context and physical context. Linguistic context, sometimes called co-text is the set of words that surround the lexical item in question in the same phrase, or sentence. The physical context is the location of a given word, the situation in which it is used, as well as timing, all of which aid proper understating of the words.

There are numerous frequently used words which depend on the physical context for their correct understanding, such as: there, that, it, or tomorrow. Terms like that are known as deictic expressions. Depending on what such words refer to they can be classified as person deixis: him, they, you; spatial deixis: there, here; and temporal deixis: then, inanhour, tomorrow. However, in pragmatics it is assumed that words do not refer to anything by themselves and it is people who in order to grasp the communicated idea perform an act of identifying what the speaker meant. This act is called reference.

Another act involved in the analysis of discourse so as to make an association between what is said and what must be meant is inference and it is often used in connection with anaphora. Anaphora is subsequent mentioning of a formerly introduced item, as in the following sentences: ‘He went to a shop’, ‘ It was closed’. When shop was mentioned for the second time the pronoun it was used to refer to it. Moreover, when people make use of such linguistic devices they necessarily make some assumptions about the knowledge of the speaker. Although some of the assumptions might be wrong, most of them are usually correct what makes the exchange of information smooth. What the producer of discourse correctly assumes to be known by the text’s recipient is described as a presupposition.

In addition to that, pragmatics is also concerned with the functions of utterances such as promising, requesting, informing which are referred to as speech acts. Certain grammatical structures are associated with corresponding functions, as in the interrogative structure ‘Do you drink tea?’ the functions is questioning. Such a case can be described as a direct speech act. However, when the interrogative structure is used to fulfill a different purpose as in ‘Can you close the window?’ where it clearly is not a question about ability, but a polite request, such a situation is described as an indirect speech act.

The use of both directs and indirect speech acts is strongly connected with the linguistic concept of politeness. Politeness in the study of language is defined as showing awareness of others people self-image by adjusting own speech style. Every person’s self image in pragmatics is called face and utterances presenting a threat to the interlocutor are known as face-threatening acts, while those which lessen the threats are called face saving acts. It is assumed that the use of indirect questions is characteristic of face saving acts.

Yule G. 1996. The study of language. Cambridge: CUP.

Wilson R. A. (Editor) 1999. The MIT encyclopedia of cognitive sciences. London: The MIT Press.

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