Pragmatics and Semantics


Pragmatics is the study of how speakers use their language to convey meaning. It involves examining what people say and the circumstances they are in when they say it, as well as what they mean by the words that they do speak.

Pragmatism, which focuses on the meaning of utterances (the literal meaning) is distinct from semantics, which focuses on the meaning of words without context (the intended meaning). Both are sub-fields of linguistics and both have their own journals.

In experimental pragmatics, we often present individual participants with a set of stimuli, representing varying independent variables, which they must respond to in some instructed manner. In most studies, we compute averages of the behavioral performances individuals receive in response to each stimulus.

The problem of task demands is frequently a point of disagreement between researchers in experimental pragmatics, who argue that these factors should not affect our theories of pragmatic language understanding. But there is a growing body of evidence showing important variations within, and between, individuals that influence their pragmatic performance in these experiments.

There are also differences in the specific task environments people must pay attention to when they perform these tasks. Some measures, such as eye-movement techniques or full phrasal and sentence reading time studies, are designed to capture local processing of figurative utterances, while others are meant to capture the broader conceptual processes that govern how people interpret different kinds of conversational implicatures (see below).

These diverse task environments represent important aspects of how people “understand” language in terms of its uses in conversation. Yet, in creating theories of pragmatics, we too often strip away these task influences as if they were not critical to characterizing the role that pragmatics plays in people’s language use and understanding.