global English linguistics and lexicography

A pragmatic note

Michael wrote an interesting post last week about how a word (in this case, complete) can be used to convey things that are not obvious from the word itself – or even the sentence it’s in. This falls under the topic of pragmatics.

According to David Crystal’s Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, pragmatics is one of three main divisions in semiotics (the study of sign and symbol systems), the others being semantics and syntactics. Semantics has to do with the meaning of words, syntactics (or more generally syntax) with their arrangement.

Pragmatics pays heed to social conventions and cultural norms – such as those of politeness, formality, and familiarity – and also to prosody, intonation, facial expressions, and gestures, all of which can vary considerably from one context to the next.

Pragmatics, then, is a very broad and multifaceted field concerned with the communicative functions of language. Essentially it’s the study of language meaning and use in context: interpersonal, social, cultural. It takes into account what a speaker means, implies, and aims to communicate with an utterance. So it’s a particularly important area for language learners.

In any conversation, we are likely to exchange both sentence-level information and more subtle, implicit information that must be inferred from the situation and from our experience of a particular language and culture – invisible meaning, as it is sometimes described. The ability to do this is called pragmatic competence.

Take for instance the popular phrase “Oh my God”. It generally connotes surprise, but it can be used to transmit all sorts of additional feelings and tones – despair, delight, excitement, grief, irony, even sarcasm. We can’t be sure unless we know the context. So a sentence might on the face of it mean the same thing and be arranged the same way, yet communicate very different things.

This ambiguity can be difficult to resolve when a phrase is seen in isolation: further contextual understanding is required before we can unpack it. In this respect, modern dictionaries have advantages over older ones – something Macmillan Dictionary Blog has looked at before.

Joanna Channell puts it neatly in her article in MED Magazine: pragmatics “describes the connection between language and human life”. Given its complexity and breadth, it’s a subject that takes some exploring. We’ll be returning to it.

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Stan Carey

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