In linguistics and related fields, pragmatics is the study of how context contributes to meaning. It is concerned with what a speaker implies and a listener infers based on contributing factors like the situational context, the individuals’ mental states, the preceding dialogue, and other elements.

The field of study evaluates how human language is utilized in social interactions, as well as the relationship between the interpreter and the interpreted. Linguists who specialize in pragmatics are called pragmaticians.

One example of pragmatics in language would be if one person asked, “What do you want to do?” and another responded, “I heard the waves are on point today.” The second person did not explicitly say what they wanted to do, but their statement implies that they want to do surfing.

Pragmatic Discourse

Text is the script, what is written on the page. Text implies subtext and delivers context. Subtext is the underlying core themes of a story, the emotional foundations of the story. Subtext can be implied in the text through the suggestion of technical and artistic choices, but it is never overtly expressed.

What is subtext vs context?

Subtext is what we mean when we talk about “reading between the lines.” The “sub” refers to underlying. It is underneath the text. It is different than context, in that context helps us interpret and understand the story, and subtext happens when the story is bigger than what is on the page.

pragmatics - rhetoric

Pragmatic Rhetoric

A work of rhetoric is pragmatic; it comes into existence for the sake of something beyond itself; it functions ultimately to produce action or change in the world; it performs some tasks.

Related: Rhetorical Devices

Pragmatic Skills

Pragmatic skills are traits involving language and communication in social settings. People with these skills can adapt their communication techniques to different circumstances and follow social norms when interacting with others.

  • Use and understanding of body language, e.g. gestures, facial expressions, eye contact.
  • Taking turns in conversation
  • Listening and speaking
  • Using the appropriate volume, speed, intonation and body distance.

The secret to pragmatics

Pragmatic language is the use of appropriate communication in social situations. It’s knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. Language exists to facilitate survival. And the functions of language include communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release.

In most accounts, the primary purpose of language is to improve communication, in the sense of transmission of information from one person to another. However, sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic studies have drawn attention to a range of other functions for language. Among these is the use of language to express a national or local identity (a common source of conflict in situations of multiethnicity around the world, such as in Belgium, India, and Quebec).

Also important are the “ludic” (playful) function of language—encountered in such phenomena as puns, riddles, and crossword puzzles—and the range of functions seen in imaginative or symbolic contexts, such as poetry, drama, and religious expression.

When people have begun to reflect on language, its relation to thinking becomes a central concern. Several cultures have independently viewed the main function of language as the expression of thought. Ancient Indian grammarians speak of the soul apprehending things with the intellect and inspiring the mind with a desire to speak, and in the Greek intellectual tradition Aristotle declared, “Speech is the representation of the experiences of the mind” (On Interpretation).

As we refined our language we started to develop the art of storytelling. We created figurative language, allegories and many other rhetorical and literary devices.

What are the different theories in pragmatics?

Pragmatics: The Cooperative Principle

The ‘cooperative principle’ is a theory by Paul Grice. Grice’s theory explains how and why conversations tend to succeed rather than fail. Grice’s theory is based on the idea of cooperation; he suggests that speakers inherently want to cooperate when communicating, which helps remove any obstacles to understanding. In order to facilitate successful communication, Grice says that when we talk, it is important to say enough to get your point across, be truthful, be relevant, and be as clear as possible.

This brings us to Grice’s 4 Maxims. These are the four assumptions we make when talking with other people.

  • Maxim of Quality: They will tell the truth or what they think is the truth.
  • Maxim of Quantity: They will give sufficient information.
  • Maxim of Relevance: They will say things that are relevant to the conversation.
  • Maxim of Manner: They will be clear, pleasant and helpful.

‘Conversational implicature’

‘Conversational implicature’, sometimes known simply as ‘implicature’, is another theory from Paul Grice. It looks at indirect speech acts. When examining implicatures, we want to know what the speaker means, even though they haven’t explicitly said it. It’s an indirect form of communication.

Pragmatics: politeness theory

Penelope Brown and Steven Levinson created ‘politeness theory’ in the 1970s. It seeks to explain how politeness in conversation works. Politeness theory was built around the concept of ‘saving face’ – this means maintaining your public image and avoiding humiliation.

Brown and Levinson suggest that we have two types of face: positive face and negative face.

  • Positive face is our self-esteem. For example, our desire to be liked, loved, and reliable.
  • Negative face is our desire to be free to act as we wish, to be unimpeded.

Appealing to a person’s positive face = Making the individual feel good and positive about themselves.

“You look great today, you always wear such lovely clothes! “

Appealing to a person’s negative face = making the other person feel like they haven’t been taken advantage of.

I know it’s a real pain, and I hope you don’t mind, but could you please print these off for me? ” Here the speaker has used negative politeness strategies, like hedging and indirectness, to avoid feelings of imposition on the listener.

Brown and Levinson suggest that when we are rude to people or impede their personal freedoms, we commit face-threatening acts (these are directed at the person we are talking to). When we admit and apologize for our shortcomings, we commit face-threatening acts (which are directed at ourselves).


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