Pragmatics is the linguistic study of meaning in context, whereas semantics cover the literal meaning of single words and the algorithms of sentence structures. Pragmatics considers both the linguistic context and all the non-linguistic factors involved in language. In the former of these, the linguistic context, can involve necessary information to understand the meaning of a sentence, such as – the preceding discourse and the antecedent reflexive and non-reflexive pronouns. For example, “I, she, he, his, hers” etc. There are also the many cases in languages of disambiguate words – words that have the same phonetic and morphological structure but have multiple different meanings. In these instances, it is the situational context which determines which meaning of the disambiguate word is correct. This is known as deixis – where the referents of some words can change due to the dictates of the situational context.

Pragmatics, also, considers things like the unspoken rules of conversation. These were termed by Paul Grice as ‘Conversational Maxims’. He split these into four categories:

Quantify: the rule where one never says more or less than required by the discourse.

Qualify: where the speaker does not tell a lie or make unsupported claims.

Relevance: the injunction, to be relevant.

Manner: be brief and orderly in your discourse and, also, avoid ambiguity and obscurity.

These rules have been observed to underpin most people’s conversation, unless individuals are being purposely uncooperative. Pragmatics examine the inferences conversationalists draw based on these additional layers of meaning, which exist outside of the literal context of the language being employed. There are, also, implicatures, which are implied meanings and presumptions within conversational language. Presuppositions are a further type of inference. In the case of assertions and presuppositions, it is the presupposition which remains unchanged.

The study of ‘Speech Acts’, originally coined by JL Austin in his development of ‘Performative Utterances’, considers that language can perform a variety of contextual roles. Language can, for example, make a promise, give a warning, apologise, threaten or sympathise. The same words within a sentence can be employed in widely divergent contextual situations. Speech acts can be examined on three different levels:

The ‘locutionary act’ – which analyses the actual performance of an utterance and its apparent meaning.

The ‘illoctionary act’ – which examines the pragmatic and underlying purpose of the utterance.

The ‘perlocutionary act’ -which looks at the actual effect of the speech act upon the situation.

These are the pragmatic factors involved in language and they show how context impacts upon linguistic meaning in so many different ways. If we did not consider pragmatics when analysing language we would not comprehend what is actually going on. Pragmatics reveals how language is used to do things in the world.

©Robert Hamilton