Pragmatics is the study of how context influences how we interpret and make meaning of communication. It is often described as the study of “language in use”.
Sometimes, the literal meaning of what is said isn’t the implied meaning. For example, pragmatics such as metaphor, irony, euphemism, and sarcasm require contextual understanding in order to get the true meaning.
Pragmatics goes beyond the literal meaning of words and phrases to understand the intended message based on factors like:
- The social situation
- The relationship between the speakers
- The cultural context
- The situational context
- The way the words are said
Pragmatics is used in language learning, where teachers have to teach not just the literal meanings of words and phrases, but their contextualized and culturally-relevant meanings to help improve the learners’ capacity to meaningfully comprehend the new language (Searle, 2010). It is also used in linguistics and academic research, such as when pragmatics is applied in textual analysis to develop deeper and culturally-relevant understandings of texts.
Pragmatics is the field of linguistics that delves into how social context, shared knowledge, and other factors shape the way language is understood and used to communicate effectively.
One of the most well-cited definitions of pragmatics comes from Crystal (2008), who defines it as:
“Pragmatics is the study of language from the point of view of users, especially of the choices they make, the constraints they encounter in using language in social interaction and the effects their use of language has on other participants in the act of communication.”
This definition suggests that, unlike formal semantics, pragmatics focuses on the user’s perspective in language use – the decisions they make when choosing words and structuring sentences, the limitations they face during social interactions, and the impact their language usage has on other people involved in the conversation.
The study of pragmatics helps us go beyond the literal, and to actually examine how everyday people – people without linguistic degrees and who aren’t language experts – actually use language to communicate in their everyday lives (Crystal, 2008; Kecskes, 2020).
In sarcasm, the intended meaning of the speaker is often the opposite of the literal meaning of their words.
For instance, if it’s raining heavily and someone says, “Great weather, isn’t it?” they don’t actually mean the weather is pleasant.
Rather, they’re implying that the weather is terrible (Levinson, 2000; Levinson, 2013).
The listener understands this inversion not from the words themselves but from the context (the fact it’s raining), as well as the speaker’s tone of voice and possibly their facial expressions or body language.
Here, pragmatics enables us to interpret sarcasm correctly.
Irony, like sarcasm, involves a divergence between the literal and intended meanings, but it’s often used to highlight contradictions or incongruities.
Consider a habitual procrastinator who announces, “I’ll start my project right away.”
If we know this person’s history of putting things off, we might interpret their statement as ironic.
They say they’ll start immediately, but we understand, based on our knowledge of their usual behavior, that they probably won’t.
Pragmatics allows us to make these kinds of interpretations based on our shared background knowledge about the speaker (Kecskes, 2020; Sperber & Wilson, 1995).
Implications, or implicature, refers to what the speaker suggests or implies, as opposed to what they directly express.
For example, if someone in a room says, “It’s cold in here,” they could be implying that they want the window closed or the heating turned up.
They haven’t explicitly stated this request, but the context and our understanding of social norms (e.g., that people typically want to be warm) lead us to this interpretation (Kecskes, 2020).
Again, pragmatics helps us navigate these unstated meanings in conversation.
Deictic expressions are words or phrases whose meanings depend on the context in which they’re used (Stapleton, 2017).
Consider a statement like, “I’ll meet you there at five.” Without context, we wouldn’t know what “there” refers to, nor whether “five” means five in the morning or evening.
If we’ve been discussing a particular café and we typically meet in the evenings, we can use that information to interpret the meaning accurately.
There are four types of deixis, and each requires context to understand the message:
- Personal Deixis: Referring to language that identifies the participants in a conversation without directly naming them. For example, if you read a diary you found and the writer refers to themselves as “I”, you’d need more context to understand who that person actually is – “I” alone doesn’t help.
- Temporal Deixis: Involves words and expressions that locate events or states in time relative to the moment of speaking. For example, if you watch a movie where a prophet claims, “The world will end in 3 years”, but you don’t know when the movie was filmed, you’ll be none the wiser about when the world will end.
- Spatial Deixis: This deals with the spatial location of an object or person relative to the speaker. Example: If someone says, “The cat is over there,” “there” indicates a location relative to the speaker’s current position. But, you need to know the speaker’s current position for it to make any sense to you.
- Discourse Deixis: Discourse deixis refers to words or expressions that make reference to another part of the conversation, either earlier or later. For, example, when someone says, “As I said earlier, we should invest more in technology,” the phrase “as I said earlier” points to a previous part of the conversation. You would need to have been present for that earlier part to get the full context (Stapleton, 2017).
Deixis highlights how pragmatics involves tying language to the specifics of the situation.
Pragmatic understanding also includes recognizing degrees of politeness in language, which can vary depending on social context, relationship between speakers, cultural norms, and more.
For example, in a formal setting or when speaking with a superior, instead of saying, “Give me the report,” one might say, “Could you please pass me the report?”
This isn’t just about being less direct – it’s about showing respect, maintaining social harmony, and adhering to the norm of politeness in the given context (Mills, 2011).
Notably, this changes across cultures – for example, I have a close Dutch friend who is very blunt, which can sometimes come across as rude in my Canadian cultural context, but it’s just her cultural background where politeness norms are different.
Here, a person studying pragmatics might be able to infer the social relationships between the speakers (as well as potentially their cultural backgrounds) by the level of deference and politeness between them.
Metaphors are a way of expressing one thing in terms of another, often to enhance understanding or create a vivid image.
If someone says, “Time is a thief,” they don’t mean this literally. Rather, they’re conveying the idea that time can pass quickly and unexpectedly, much like a thief might operate.
This understanding comes from our shared cultural knowledge about what thieves do (steal, often without being noticed until later).
Pragmatics allows us to make sense of metaphors by connecting language with our wider knowledge of the world.
7. Indirect speech acts
An indirect speech act is where the structure of the sentence doesn’t match the speaker’s actual intention (Crystal, 2008).
If at a dinner table someone says, “Can you pass the salt?” they’re not genuinely asking if the person is physically capable of passing the salt; they’re requesting that they do so. (Rather, literally, the should have said “may you please pass the salt”).
The literal question is not the actual intent of the communication. Understanding this requires us to take into account the social context (a meal) and the principles of polite request-making.
Euphemisms are softer or less direct ways of expressing something that may be unpleasant, sensitive, or taboo.
If someone says, “He passed away” instead of “He died,” they’re using a euphemism to talk about death in a less harsh way.
Recognizing this indirectness is a pragmatic skill, as it involves understanding how people often try to mitigate potentially upsetting or offensive messages.
9. Jokes and Humor
Understanding jokes often requires competence with social and cultural contexts. Similarly, knowing how to make a good joke (and avoid ones beyond the pale) requires people to be tapped into the social milieu.
Take for instance, the classic joke, “Why don’t we ever tell secrets on a farm? Because the potatoes have eyes, the corn has ears and the beans stalk.”
This joke relies on an understanding of idiomatic language and the ability to connect disparate ideas—farming and secrecy—in a playful way.
It also often requires cultural knowledge (for instance, knowing that “to stalk” someone means to follow them surreptitiously).
10. Cultural References
Often, speakers use cultural references to communicate their ideas more effectively.
For example, if someone says, “He’s a real Sherlock Holmes,” they’re implying that the person is very observant or good at solving mysteries.
Understanding this requires knowledge of the Sherlock Holmes character and his attributes.
Here, pragmatics involves understanding how language and culture intersect, enabling us to make sense of these types of allusions (Levinson, 2013; Sperber & Wilson, 1995).
This can make learning languages very difficult for cultural outsiders, who need to learn both the language and the culture simultaneously (although, for me as a Spanish learner, I find it exciting that learning the language also gives me insights into the culture!).
Hedges are words or phrases used to lessen the impact of an utterance, often to avoid confrontation or to soften a critique.
For example, if someone says, “I might be wrong, but I think your argument is flawed,” the phrase “I might be wrong” serves as a hedge. It reduces the assertiveness of the speaker’s critique and acknowledges the possibility of error (Kecskes, 2020).
Recognizing hedges requires understanding how we use language not just to convey information, but also to manage our social relationships and mitigate potential conflict.
Hedges are also used extensively in professional and academic contexts to demonstrate humility and acceptance that new information may change their assessments and evaluations, which is considered to represent open-mindedness.
12. Phatic Communication
This type of communication is used to perform social tasks, like establishing rapport, rather than to convey specific information.
If someone asks, “How are you?” when you meet, they’re usually not seeking a detailed account of your well-being.
Rather, it’s a conventional way to acknowledge each other and initiate a social interaction. The expected response is something like, “Fine, thank you.”
Here, pragmatics helps us to recognize and participate in these ritualized forms of social exchange (Crystal, 2008).
13. Use of Silence
Pragmatics also involves understanding what’s not said. Silence can communicate a lot based on the context.
For example, if during a meeting someone proposes an idea and there’s a long pause, that silence might communicate disagreement, awkwardness, surprise, or the need for further contemplation, depending on the specific dynamics and norms of the group (Levinson, 2000; Levinson, 2013).
Interpreting silence correctly involves understanding these broader social factors.
Similarly, if we choose to exclude something from the discussion (e.g. not talking about ‘the elephant in the room’ or a taboo), this is context that needs to be considered in a discussion to make full meaning of the communication.
This is a figure of speech that involves exaggeration for emphasis or dramatic effect.
If someone says, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” they don’t literally mean they could consume an entire horse.
Rather, they’re exaggerating their hunger to convey its intensity. Understanding hyperbole requires recognizing this figurative use of language and interpreting it in relation to the speaker’s likely intent (Kecskes, 2020).
A tautology is a statement that is true in every possible interpretation or a statement that repeats the same idea in different words (Booth, 2015).
For example, if someone says, “It’s déjà vu all over again,” they’re using a tautology. The phrase “déjà vu” already implies experiencing something again, so adding “all over again” doesn’t add new information—it emphasizes the feeling of repetition.
Recognizing tautologies requires an understanding of both the literal meanings of the words and the speaker’s intention to emphasize or dramatize their message.
Pragmatic Principles and Maxims
1. Grice’s cooperative principle
Coined by H.P. Grice (1975), this principle posits that communication relies on the assumption that all participants are trying to cooperate to make the conversation effective.
This is a key element in the interpretation of what people say and what they intend to convey.
Conversations would be ineffective if participants didn’t generally attempt to understand and be understood by others.
For example, we can see in combative political discourse that Grice’s cooperative principle is not being adhered to, meaning people intentionally misinterpret one another, undermine each other, and make minimal effort to actually connect through communication.
2. Maxims of conversation
Grice further elaborated the cooperative principle through four maxims.
These maxims are:
- Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required, but not more.
- Quality: Do not say what you believe to be false or lack adequate evidence for.
- Relation: Only say things that are relevant to the current conversation.
- Manner: Be clear, brief, and orderly, such as not talking out of turn and do not dominate the conversation.
While these aren’t rigid rules, violations can lead to misunderstandings or misleading implications
3. Relevance theory and its implications
Developed by Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995), this theory proposes that an essential feature of human communication is the pursuit and recognition of relevance.
Speakers shape their utterances to be relevant to the listener’s context, and listeners interpret utterances based on the assumption of optimal relevance—that the speaker is saying something worthwhile and is doing so in the most effective way possible.
This extends and refines Grice’s maxims, particularly the maxim of relevance.
Pragmatics helps people studying linguistics to develop deeper and more effective understandings of communicative acts. It helps us to reach the actual or implied meaning, rather than a surface meaning gleaned through decontextualized reading of a text.
It’s therefore widely used in academic research, such as in content analysis, where a scholar needs to interpret not the literal words, but the implied meaning, when transcribing information during research.
Furthermore, pragmatics in language learning involves teaching language learners to not just understand the words but also glean the implied, contextualized, and culturally-relevant meanings of words. Pragmatics helps language learners to interpret metaphor, irony, sarcasm, and so forth effectively, each of which is a key example of pragmatics in communication.
Booth, S. (2015). Close reading without readings. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Crystal, D. (2008). A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (6th ed.). New York: Blackwell.
Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and Semantics: Speech Acts (Vol. 3, pp. 41-58). Academic Press.
Kecskes, I. (2020). Context in communication: A cognitive view. Oxford University Press.
Levinson, S. C. (2000). Presumptive meanings: The theory of generalized conversational implicature. Mass.: MIT press.
Levinson, S. C. (2013). Action formation and ascription. In J. Sidnell & T. Stivers (Eds.), The Handbook of Conversation Analysis, (pp. 103-130). New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
Mills, S. (2011). Discursive approaches to politeness and impoliteness. In Linguistic Politeness Research Group (Ed.), Discursive Approaches to Politeness, (pp. 19-56). Los Angeles: De Gruyter Mouton.
Searle, J. R. (2010). Making the social world: The structure of human civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sperber, D., and Wilson, D. (1986/1995). Relevance: Communication and cognition. London: Blackwell.
Stapleton, A. (2017). Deixis in modern linguistics. Essex Student Journal, 9(1).
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]