What is Pragmatics?


Pragmatics is the study of what speakers mean by their words and how the meaning of those words relates to other aspects of communication such as the overall situation in which the utterance takes place, the speakers’ intentions and actions, and the intended outcome of the utterance. It’s the kind of thing that linguists and psycholinguists are concerned with.

The word pragmatic comes from the Greek root pragmatos, which means “dealing sensibly and practically.” Pragmatics is one of the youngest subfields of linguistics, having developed in the 1930s with the help of Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, John Dewey, and others. It’s a topic that can be taught in many different ways, from using resources available on the Forum to discussing how to make requests in the classroom with your students.

As a research paradigm, pragmatism seeks to bridge the gap between postpositivism and constructivism in the ontological and epistemological camps (Creswell 2013; Morgan 2014b). A pragmatist researcher will take into account all layers of an issue before choosing which methods are most appropriate to investigate it. The pragmatist will select those methods that are most suitable to his or her question and that are likely to yield results that can be used in real-life situations (Greene and Caracelli 2003; Teddlie and Tashakkori 2009).

Pragmatics is not a discipline without its critics. Some researchers have suggested that pragmatism suffers from a lack of rigorous testing and scientific methodology and may be too closely linked to anthropology, sociology, and other social sciences that aren’t as focused on language use. Others point to the wide range of conflicting experimental findings and the fact that people rarely understand utterances in exactly the same way—a phenomenon called pragmatic interpretation.