Jul 022010


Pragmatics is a relatively young branch of linguistics and basically it’s about the way we get meaning from context to understand people’s intentions – or not, of course – but it’s not a simple thing to define.

George Yule memorably described it as the study of ‘invisible meaning’ because it’s not about the meanings we get from syntax or semantics. It’s more about the relationship between the linguistic forms and the users of the language. So anyway, I chuckled when I read Laine Cole’s anecdote over at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog (where they have just started running an American English month – very exciting!) She has illustrated it perfectly. Laine grew up in South Africa and her story goes thus:

I once shared an office with two Britons and an American. We all started work at more or less the same time and we were all just getting to know each other. One day my new American friend took me aside and said: ‘Do you understand what those two are saying when they speak?’ ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘But maybe it’s because I’m more used to the British accent’. ‘No’, he said. ‘It’s not their accent. It’s that they don’t seem to say what they mean’.

Ha! No wonder learning to speak ‘merican is hard for this Brit. And it reminded me of my favourite definition of pragmatics. I’m afraid I’ve no idea where it comes from, but it goes:


Many thanks to Macmillan Dictionary Blog for the anecdote and also for including my guest post on ‘The trickiest word in American’ today

 Posted by at 12:56 am

  14 Responses to “What is pragmatics?”

  1. I was visiting some friends in Portugal, they were raised in Angola and educated in South Africa so they all spoke perfect English. I was reminded of pragmatics often on that visit.

    When a family friend came out of the bathroom, she said, is there any toilet paper in this house? Of course she wasn’t taking a survey, but her meaning was, can you replace the toilet paper that has finished in the bathrooom.

    At dinner, after tasting the food, another person said, don’t you believe in salt? Of course they meant please pass the salt so I can put some on my food.

    The visit was at first unsettling because of these abrasive exchanges but it grew funnier and funnier, but I can imagine if I wasn’t aware of pragmatics I would have been really lost.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karenne Sylvester, Ian James. Ian James said: RT @vickihollett Pragmatics is the study of how we don’t say what we mean! (via @kalinagoenglish) #beltfree […]

  3. Wow, that is so true,I notice that we often speak in inverted commas from the “yeah right” meaning rubbish to the more sophisticated version, of course they have all flown out of my head as I type.
    Thanks for reminding me of this Vicki.

  4. Yeah right Sheila – and I really mean it – Ha! No sarcasm or irony intended. And it makes you wonder how we keep managing to communicate when we don’t say what we mean. It’s also interesting that we like to believe that we’ll do our students a service if we get them to say what they mean, but we don’t do it actually do it ourselves.

    Owen, those are terrific examples – thank you so much for sharing them! Requests are often laden with indirectness and we’d have no idea what they were about without the context. ‘Do you live in a barn?’ ‘Are you making a cup of tea?’ ‘Your coat’s on the floor’. Michael Swan has a great example: ‘Let’s not have a repetition of last time’ (ie. don’t get drunk and start flirting with Melissa)

    Does anyone else have any other examples? Do please share if you do.

    Your example with the verb ‘believe’ reminded me of an interesting anecdote I just read over at Ken Wilson’s blog. It was posted by Ty Kendall (It comes from here: http://kenwilsonelt.wordpress.com/2009/11/01/coming-up-some-sort-of-culture-debate/ ) Ty said that in an informal setting, he once told someone in Hebrew ‘I don’t trust you’ (because he thought they were about to tickle him). They took offence and it turned out what he should have said was ‘I don’t believe you’. Ty pointed out that there was no particular linguistic reason why his utterance caused offence or was considered wrong. It was just a culturally expected responses which he was unaware of.

  5. Hi Vicki,

    Have you come across David Mitchell turning his ‘angry logic’ onto the subject of ‘I could care less’ in ‘Dear Americans…’

    It’s on YouTube


  6. Oh thank you for that link Jessica. No, I hadn’t seen it. ‘Could care less’ has been mentioned by folks here before, and I’ve been meaning to do a posting on it. This video will be perfect.

  7. hi, Vicky. I want to share with you this experience that I had one day when I decided to visit an old friend at university where she works as a teacher. But first of all, let me give you part of the context. The thing is that We haven’t seen each others for more than ten years! She got married, had a cute baby girl, took a Masrer’s degree, etc. Anyway,as we were talking and laughing at our lives as students, a lady, who was our English teacher there at the university, arrived. She didnt even say good morning or something but said hi to myfriendnd interrupted impolitely our conversation. My friend said hello to her too. After saying hi, my friend asked the teacher if she remembered me, but she replied: “oh, yes I do remember him now. But I couldnt at first because of his haircut!” (What she meant was that I got an extravagant haircut!)

  8. Great to meet you Luis! Yeah, the lack of greeting was meaningful. And that’s one of the interesting things about pragmatics. The things we don’t say or do can mean more than the things we do say or do. Thanks very much for this!

  9. […] BeSig World Blog, Viki Hollett, What is Pragmatics, https://merican.vickihollett.com/?p=2551 Viki Hollet, What isn’t Pragmatics, https://merican.vickihollett.com/?p=2595 Steve Flinders & […]

  10. Pragmatics is the art of saying what you think with the possibility of denying any responsibility for the effect that your ideational content may have on the addressee. In this respect, it is like literary discourse which is unchallenged.

  11. Oh another definition. Thank you Bel Abbes!

    But tell me more. Why could you deny it? Because you could pretend it was unintentional? Because you were ambiguous?

  12. As you know, the pragmatic meaning is protean in character since it is context bound, and since context is a variable element, one can always, in case of a problem, pretend that the force of one’s utterance was misunderstood. ‘ Well, I didn’t mean that’ and ‘sorry that’s what you understood’ are utterances that we frequently hear in our daily conversations. Ambiguity may lead to misunderstanding in case we do not share the context of situation as defined by Malinowski, 1923 and Hymes 1972 (if my memory is good), but what is more important is that it is us who, sometimes, look for it to leave for ourselves both a room for denial or create an implicature. Well, the literature on the topic is huge.

  13. Ah yes, indeed Bel Abbes. I think we tend to focus a lot on being clear and direct in the language classroom, when actually learning how to be ambiguous can be a very useful skill sometimes too. It gives us wiggle room.

    Oddly enough it was what I had in mind when I made a video this week for a Pearson event. You have to go to the end to see my bit. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0Zmmjnx4SY

  14. […] recently wrote about ‘What is pragmatics?’, but perhaps it’s best explained by what it isn’t. I think pragmatics is probably why this […]

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