Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding

Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding

Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding

Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding


This book differs from other introductions to pragmatics in approaching the problems of interpreting language use in terms of interpersonal modelling of beliefs and intentions. It is intended to make issues involved in language understanding, such as speech, text, and discourse, accessible to the widest group possible -- not just specialists in linguistics or communication theorists -- but all scholars and researchers whose enterprises depend on having a useful model of how communicative agents understand utterances and expect their own utterances to be understood.

Based on feedback from readers over the past seven years, explanations in every chapter have been improved and updated in this thoroughly revised version of the original text published in 1989. The most extensive revisions concern the relevance of technical notions of mutual and normal belief, and the futility of using the notion 'null context' to describe meaning. In addition, the discussion of implicature now includes an extended explication of "Grice's Cooperative Principle" which attempts to put it in the context of his theory of meaning and rationality, and to preclude misinterpretations which it has suffered over the past 20 years. The revised chapter exploits the notion of normal belief to improve the account of conversational implicature.


"I had an appointment at the lawyers," Gram announced. "At which I was told that you are now, legally and officially and permanently my responsibility."

"We're adopted?" James asked.

"That's what I said."

"No, it's not," he pointed out.

"Well it's what I meant and since you understood me it must be what I said."

--Cynthia Voigt, Dicey's Song, p. 150. (New York: Atheneum, 1983)

In this chapter and the two following, we turn our attention from the questions of the intended reference of referring expressions, which occupied us in chapters 2 and 3, to questions of what a speaker intends to accomplish in saying what she says, and saying it the way she says it and at the point in the discourse at which it is said.

We look first at the kinds of acts that are involved when one (merely) says something (speech acts and the illocutionary forces of utterances), and then turn to implications of a speaker's choice of word or phrase (presuppositions and connotations) and to the implications (technically, the implicatures) of saying something with particular propositional content and presuppositions. We consider implicatures in some detail in chapter 5, tracing how a single, general, non-linguistic principle provides the means to explain how people can mean (and convey) more than they say. This enables us to account for such conversational strategies as understatement, damning with faint praise, and intentional vagueness. At the same time, it provides the foundation for understanding the phenomenon of textual coherence--what makes individually comprehensible sentences into more . . .

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