Pragmatics, which studies why we decide on a certain choice of language in social interaction, is generally attributed to British philosopher Charles Morris (1938-1971). Pragmatics examines social rules that affect choice. It also takes into account the social status of the speaker and cultural features such as politeness and formality. It concerns focus and content as well as explicit and implicit linguistic features. The early studies of pragmatics were concerned with the problem of how listeners uncover speakers' intentions.

This is a complex branch of linguistics that is difficult to define and has evolved since it was first identified. It correlates closely with other branches of linguistics such as semantics, stylistics, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics. These often overlap when studying pragmatics. Pragmatics can help to clear up ambiguities in language. For example, the following statements depend on pragmatics for a clearer understanding of their meaning: "Flying planes can be dangerous" and "the missionaries are ready to eat."

The study of pragmatics includes meaning in language that can be explained by knowledge of the physical and social world, the socio-psychological factors influencing communication, and the knowledge of the time and place in which the words are uttered or written. For example, background knowledge about the topic can put language into context. This may be cultural knowledge or interpersonal knowledge. Cultural knowledge is general knowledge that most people possess about areas of life, while interpersonal knowledge is specific knowledge that the hearer may have about the speaker.

Other contexts that can affect the meaning of language are situational and co-textual contexts. Situational context is what the speakers know about the world around them. For example in a conversation about a place, such as Disneyland, the listener may come to certain conclusions without having been led to them directly simply by having knowledge of the place itself.

Co-textual context explores the context of the text itself. It takes in grammatical cohesion, such as the use of ellipsis to avoid repetition or the substitution of text that has already been mentioned beforehand. It is used where repetition would make the text over-explicit, such as to keep referring to the subject in a sentence by assuming that the reader would not understand that it (the subject) was still being referred to at another point in the text.

So the focus of pragmatics is on not only what is directly communicated through speech but also what is not communicated through that dialogue. Both speaker and listener may understand the meaning of a conversation due to knowledge that is shared. In the conversation, a speaker constructs a linguistic message that has a direct or implied meaning; the listener interprets this message and infers the meaning.

A subfield of pragmatics is the speech act theory, which studies indirect and direct speech. In a direct speech, the literal meaning and the understood meaning are the same. An indirect speech carries a different literal meaning to its understood meaning. An example of this might be in the field of crime where a person may utter a threat that has no meaning or intent in certain situations. The words: "I'll murder them" may be perfectly innocuous in some settings. It is a well used figure of speech. However, given another set of circumstances, it may take on a more menacing meaning.

One of the main criticisms of this discipline is the fact that its principles are so vague that there could be numerous possible meanings applied to a single utterance. Pragmatics does not have a clear-cut focus. Another problem is its close relationship with semantics, which is the study of the meaning of words and sentences. There exists a belief that the study of language can be adequately covered by the field of semantics, although pragmatics offers a look at aspects of language that semantics may overlook. It provides a fuller, more rounded insight into human language behavior. It is also used in observing different languages.

For example, cross-cultural pragmatics considers the fact that what is considered polite in one language is sometimes not polite in another. It is also called interlanguage pragmatics and concerns the way non-native speakers understand and produce speech, including how they go on to develop pragmatic competence. Hence, pragmatics is increasingly being introduced into language teaching classrooms.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Pragmatics and Discourse: A Resource Book for Students
Joan Cutting.
Routledge, 2002
Mind, Code, and Context: Essays in Pragmatics
T. Givón.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989
Pragmatic Development
Anat Ninio; Catherine E. Snow.
Westview Press, 1996
Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding
Georgia M. Green.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996 (2nd edition)
Relevance and Linguistic Meaning: The Semantics and Pragmatics of Discourse Markers
Diane Blakemore.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Applied Organizational Communication: Perspectives, Principles, and Pragmatics
Thomas E. Harris.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993
Poetics and Pragmatics in the Vedic Liturgy for the Installation of the Sacrificial Post
Proferes, Theodore N.
The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 123, No. 2, April-June 2003
Performing Texts
Michael Issacharoff; Robin F. Jones.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988
Librarian’s tip: "Much Ado About Doing Things with Words (and Other Means): Some Problems in the Pragmatics of Theatre and Drama" begins on p. 39
Thought and Reference
Kent Bach.
Clarendon Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Semantics, Pragmatics, and Reference"
Education and the Postmodern Condition
Michael Peters.
Bergin & Garvey, 1995
Librarian’s tip: "Critical Pedagogy and the Pragmatics of Justice" begins on p. 87
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