Pragmatic is the study of language use in context. Unlike semantics, which studies the rule systems that determine literal linguistic meanings of expressions, or syntax, which deals with how we combine words to form sentences, pragmatics takes into account social and physical context to help us interpret the meaning of those expressions.
It also considers the intention of an utterance, rather than its literal meaning. So if someone says, “Gosh look at the time,” it may mean that they want to get away from the conversation, but their actual intention is likely the opposite of that: they just wanted to tell you about their clock.
Among the major contemporary pragmatist writers are the philosophers of language, such as Paul Grice, who wrote the Four Gricean Maxims that have become the standard for everyday pragmatics: be economical with your speech; be polite; avoid ambiguity; and be relevant. These rules are what make slang possible, jokes funny, and conversations meaningful.
While there are many other philosophies that can be considered pragmatic, the word most often applies to a person who is guided more by practical consequences than by theories or dogma. A pragmatic person is a hard-headed thinker who prefers more explanatory models that can be tested in the real world.
A current symptom of the pragmatist revival is a renewed interest in computational pragmatics, which examines how people communicate their intentions to computers. For example, Victoria Fromkin’s SAS focuses on how to reduce ambiguity in computer programming so that a system can accurately mimic human understanding of what is being said.