Pragmatic is a specialized area of linguistics (the study of language), focusing on how context affects the meaning of a sentence or expression. It differs from other linguistic areas such as semantics, syntax, and semiotics because it examines how cultural and situational factors influence the way we use language.
Pragmatic knowledge enables you to politely hedge a request, read between the lines in conversation, and negotiate turn-taking norms in discussion. It is also what allows you to make sense of ambiguous statements and understand that people don’t always say exactly what they mean.
The study of pragmatics has two main parts, far and near-side pragmatics. Far-side pragmatics studies the things that a speaker is trying to convey in an utterance, while near-side pragmatics examines features of the speech context that help determine which proposition an utterance expresses.
Often, a person’s pragmatic skills are developed during adolescence, but they can be learned by anyone. These skills allow us to adapt our communication techniques to different circumstances and follow social norms such as keeping personal space, speaking at an appropriate volume, or using gestures appropriately.
For example, if you see the sign “Luggage must be carried on the escalator” at an airport, the literal, semantic meaning is that everyone must rush over to the escalator and carry their luggage on it. But, thanks to pragmatics, you know that the linguistic and semantic ambiguity in this statement is only true for people who are actually carrying their luggage on the escalator.