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Professor: Dr. Laura Alba Juez


What is pragmatics? Why do we need pragmatic knowledge

in communication?

Many authors have defined Pragmatics in

different ways, and in these definitions,
elements such as context, meaning
beyond literal meaning, speech acts,
deixis, understatement or implicature are
presented as important components of
this discipline.
Leech explains that both Semantics and
Pragmatics are concerned with meaning,
but the difference between them lies in
two different uses of the verb to mean
(1983: 6):
[1] What does X mean?
[2] What did you mean by X?
Semantics would deal with [1], and
Pragmatics with [2]. Thus, it is
important to point out that
pragmatics is defined with respect to
a speaker or user of the language.

Georgia Greens (1989) definition of Pragmatics is, by contrast, a much broader one:
Linguistic pragmatics as defined here is at the intersection of a number of fields within and
outside of cognitive science: not only linguistics, cognitive psychology, cultural anthropology, and
Philosophy (logic, semantics, action theory), but also sociology (interpersonal dynamics and
social convention) and rhetoric contribute to its domain. (1989: 2)
One of Levinsons (1983) definitions of Pragmatics as the study of utterance meaning equates it
to Schiffrins definition of Discourse Analysis. But, are Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis
the same? Schiffrin notes that the scope of Pragmatics is wide and faces definitional dilemmas
similar to those faced by discourse analysis (1994: 190).
The more we study conversation or any kind of discourse, the more we realize that it is not so
much what the sentences literally mean that matters, as how they reveal the intentions and
strategies of the speakers themselves.

In any case, and as Peter Grundy (2008) suggests with the following quote from Sam Johnson
(1776), We all know what light is, but it is not easy to tell what it is.


Non-literal or indirect meaning


One of the important features of
language has to do with appropriate
ways of using language to get business
Appropriateness is thought in relation
to those who use the language and
those to whom it is directed
Read and look at this comic strip about
Alice in Wonderland. Do you find it
Is there anything strange about it? If so,
what is it and why is it strange?


Human discourse is full of nonliteral, indirect meanings.

Consider the mothers question
in the strip on the right. Why is it
indirect? What does she mean
with her question?

Many appropriate utterances are

indirect. Sometimes
appropriateness requires
indirectness, as for instance in:
A: What do you think of Paula?
Is she pretty?
B: Well, shes certainly a very
good student.

But how do we get from literal to nonliteral, indirect meaning? We
obviously have to draw inferences or
come to conclusions as to what the
speaker is intending to convey. So
what the patient in this cartoon does
is verbalize the inference she made
from what the doctor said.
In Grundys example (2008: 7):

Radion removes dirt AND odours

We infer that other washing powders
leave our clothes smelling bad, even
though we are not told such a thing.

So communication is not only about a

speaker encoding a message and a
hearer decoding it. The receiver must
also draw an inference as to what is
conveyed beyond what is stated.

The fact that some meanings are matters of
inference implies that the utterances we encounter
are somehow unclear or ambiguous, i.e., underdetermined. This means that an utterance might
have several possible meanings and that the
inferences we draw determine which of these
possible meanings is the one the addressee thinks
the speaker is intending.
The picture on the right is an example of image
undeterminacy or ambiguity. Depending on how
you look at it, it may be the picture of an old lady
or of a young one. Can you see them both?
Thus, the following utterance is under-determined
in that it would mean different things depending
on whether its uttered by most people or by a
university lecturer:
Ive just finished a book
Pragmatics is partly about trying to account in
systematic ways for our ability to determine
what speakers intend even when their
utterances are under-determined.


Context is a crucial aspect for determining the

meaning of an utterance. And we refer here not
only to linguistic context, but to the physical,
social and cultural contexts as well.
The same utterance in different contexts may
mean completely different things. Think of the
I love people with good manners
Said by a person in a conversation about
good manners.
b) Said by a person after someone else has been
rude to her.

Do a) and b) mean exactly the same?


Relevance has been seen by Sperber and Wilson (1986,

1995) as the most important principle in accounting for
the way we understand language. Since we take every
utterance as relevant, we understand utterances in
whatever way will make them as relevant as possible.
So, for instance, in Grundys (2008: 14) example of the
sign pinned to a chair that read:
Sit down with care. Legs can come off
It is obviously more relevant to assume that it refers to
the legs of the chair rather than to those of the person
sitting down.
Think of the nowadays famous T.V commercial
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfyeXrdZZ1o )
where George Cloney says: Nespresso; what else?
What is the most relevant assertion intended by the

As we try to determine what people mean
by what they say, we usually need to accept
or accommodate a good deal of information
which we feel is known to both the speaker
and ourselves (Grundy, 2008: 14).
This background knowledge or
accommodation is essential to making
sense of exchanges like the following, taken
from another of the Nespresso commercials
ZS2BrE&feature=related )
Weve run out of capsules up there
Heaven can wait, George, but not for its
Think of all the information we have to
accommodate in order to understand the
real meaning of this exchange between
George and John.

We usually provide some sort of comment on
how our utterance fits into the discourse as a
whole, or on how we want to be understood.
When we do this, we make it easier for our
interlocutor(s) to understand what we mean.
That is why reflexive uses of language as the
following are so common:
Bill Clinton (on his relationship with Monica
Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms
Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it
was wrong.
Here indeed, in fact and the emphatic did are
examples of reflexive uses of language which tell
us about Clintons commitment to the truth of
what he is saying

Pragmatic misfires occur when a given utterance does not have the expected pragmatic
effect. In spite of the negative effect they may have, they are important because they tell
us -by showing us the effect of not achieving the norm- that there are expected norms for
The following utterance was considered to be a misfire when a reader understood that
the suit was a piece of clothing (when in fact it referred to a legal action),
The tailor pressed one suit in the municipal court
And the following headline was a misfire when the reader interpreted that the gun had
been found beside the victim (and not that the victim had found it (which was the
intended meaning):
Stolen gun found by the victim
This kind of misfires reminds us of the great care speakers need to exercise in order to
convey the intended meaning successfully. Can you think of other examples of misfires?
However, misfires are rare, and normally speakers are able to convey the meanings they
intend with remarkable consistency.

Although all the above features have been treated separately for the sake
of clarity, the fact is that all or most of them normally appear together
in a bundle, as can be seen in the following utterance (made by a
dancing teacher in her class to one of her new students):
Is she your partner? I mean, are you
going to dance together?
We can see here how the features of every day language studied in this
unit (appropriateness, indeterminacy, inference, etc.) work together in
order to make the utterance a pragmatic whole: 1) the question the
teacher makes is an appropriate way to ask about dancing partners in a
dancing class, but considering the student is new, the teacher realizes she
has to reformulate her question in order to make sure the student does
not misinterpret the question as one about his private life. Thus we see
the element of reflexivity in the pragmatic marker I mean.

Therefore, the question Is she your partner? is underdetermined and can become a misfire if the
addressee does not have a common background and
knowledge of the terminology used in a dancing class
and of the context in general. This knowledge will
make him work out the right inference as to what the
teacher means by partner (i.e. dancing partner, not
girl-friend), therefore making the former
interpretation the most relevant. In this way, the
student will learn to accommodate this background
information in order to make the correct
interpretation of the teachers utterance.