Pragmatics

This page explains the difficulty of pragmatics for English language learners.

Pragmatics is a branch of semantics, the study of meaning. Pragmatics is the study of words, phrases and sentences specifically as used to convey meanings that are different from the literal meanings of the message.

An intuitive understanding of pragmatic intent allows us to interpret a statement such as It's a bit hot in here! as a request to open the window.

Language learners often have trouble understanding the pragmatic intent behind an utterance. So, they might not realise that the teacher's question Are you listening to me? is not expecting the answer Yes, I am!. He means Please stop daydreaming and listen to me.

The wife who asks her husband Have you seen my keys? would be surprised by the answer Yes, I've seen them many times. She is not asking a general question here, but asking for his help in finding them.

Similarly, the husband who has been clothes shopping and says Have you seen my new shoes? would be surprised by the answer Yes, they're on your feet. He is expecting her to voice her opinion of them.

Pragmatic 'failures' are also common in communications between speakers of different English dialects. It took me a while to understand that new American colleagues were not expecting a full account of my mental or physical condition when asking How's it going? They were simply saying Hello!

[More on pragmatics]


Quiz 1

Almost every sentence we utter can be intended to convey a different meaning than the literal one. So in this case your quiz task is to come up with some possible responses in the following scenario.

It's quite late in the evening and your partner asks you if you would like to go for a walk. You don't want to go for a walk, but you also don't want to just say No, I don't want to go for a walk. What are some responses you could make to convey your rejection of the suggestion?

Here are some ideas. There are many more possibilities.

  • It's getting quite late.
  • I have to get up early tomorrow.
  • I'm feeling really tired.
  • The news is on in a minute.
  • I was just about to have a beer.
  • My knee has been giving me trouble all day.
  • I think it's going to rain.
  • I've borrowed a new book from the library. (i.e. I'd rather read than walk)

Quiz 2

Imagine the following situation: You bump into a friend while shopping and she suggests going to the nearest café for a chat. You are tired after all the shopping, so she tells you to find a seat while she goes to the counter. In response to her question as to what you want, you say "I like tea."

How do you interpret her answer?

This seems like a ridiculously easy quiz question. You interpret your friend's statement as meaning that she wants you to buy her a cup of tea and bring it to the table so that she can drink it. And you would be right, of course.

But that's a lot of interpretation for a three-word sentence, which it is only possible in the pragmatic context. If you heard the statement out of context, you would still probably be right in thinking that the person saying it likes drinking tea. But it is also possible that the person likes tea because she likes to smell different varieties of tea or to look at different colourful tea packages or to soak in a bath of tea.

The point being made here is that language is full of utterances that can only be understood in their pragmatic context. This is why Artificial Intelligence is still a long way from being able to correctly interpret all the utterances it is fed. And of course, the same applies to many non-native speakers,