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  Pragmatics (Greek, ‘science of use’), in linguistics, is the practical study of language. Although the arrangement and choice of words in a sentence are crucial to the meaning conveyed, it is also apparent that many aspects of meaning will be missed if we focus only on literal sentence meaning. Being the study of language as it is actually used, pragmatics reveals that the literal meaning of what is said needs to be greatly enriched if communication is to succeed at all. In trying to decipher what someone is trying to say, we supplement the conventional meanings of the words spoken by taking into account the situation, the participants, what has been said before, general background knowledge, and an ability to draw reasonable inferences. Pragmatics, then, aims to bridge the gap between what is said and what is actually understood when language is being used.

The implications of what someone says can sometimes be deduced simply by reference to linguistic factors. For example, when ‘and’ is used to join two phrases together, there is a literal additive meaning (‘I had jelly and ice cream’). Additionally, a more subtle inference is also made, (known as a conventional implicature), whereby ‘and’ signals that the events are ordered successively in time, as in (1):

(1) The car broke down and I called the breakdown services.

In the following example (2), this convention is violated, and consequently the sentence has an unnatural feel:

(2) I called the breakdown services and the car broke down.

In addition to conventional implications, there are many occasions when our ability to reason and draw non-logical inferences is tested more severely as in example (3):

(3) A: That\'s the phone.

B: I\'m in the bath.

When (A) says ‘That\'s the phone’, it is clearly more than a simple statement of fact. It is, in fact, an indirect speech act which functions as a request for (B) to answer the phone. (B)\'s response appears to be a complete non sequitur, but (A) will normally infer that (B) is unable to fulfil the request. This deduction is only possible on the assumption that conversations are more than a random juxtaposition of isolated sentences. Even in the face of seeming gibberish, people will still generally presume that what speakers say is inter-connected and coherent, giving rise to the concept of a co-operative principle to guarantee the success of communication.

A number of factors underlie the assumption of co-operation, and these are traditionally presented as a series of maxims. The first maxim demands that speakers provide just enough information to make their message clear. Second, speakers should only say what they believe to be true. Third, there is a requirement that what speakers say is relevant to the context in which it is produced. And finally, it is incumbent on speakers to be clear, concise and unambiguous in the way they present information. Of course, these maxims can be flouted, as in (3) above, since (B)\'s response is not directly relevant. But crucially, people generally continue to assume that their conversational partner is still co-operating. In consequence, the process of inference-making is set in train in order to correctly interpret the speaker\'s intended meanings. An outstanding problem for pragmatic theory, which is only now receiving attention, is to explain why people should be so indirect in expressing what they mean. MS

See also semantics; speech-act theory.Further reading G.N. Leech, Principles of Pragmatics; , S.C. Levinson, Pragmatics.



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Prague School Linguistics


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