Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics that studies the use and interpretation of words, phrases, and sentences in a variety of contexts. It differs from other areas of linguistic study such as semantics, syntax, and semiotics by focusing on how language is used in both the literal and nonliteral senses.
Semantics: The Science of Meaning
Semantics examines the rules that determine the linguistic meaning of words and phrases, as well as how these rules work in different contexts. Pragmatics examines how these rules are applied in different situations and how they interact with the underlying physical or social context.
Syntax: The Science of Composition
Syntax explores the way in which words are combined to form words with specific linguistic meanings. It also focuses on how certain linguistic expressions are paired with corresponding symbols or signs to convey information in various ways.
Semiotics: The Science of Communication
Semiotics is the study of how symbols are used to convey messages in different languages. It focuses on the relationships between symbols and their interpreters.
Often, people are unsure of what they mean in different situations. This is when pragmatics comes in handy!
The word ‘pragmatic’ is derived from Greek pragma, meaning ‘to deal sensibly and practically.’ It is the opposite of ‘idealistic’ and a positive term for sensible and practical people and ideas!
Pragmatics originated with a group of philosophers who met in Harvard around the 1870s. The so-called ‘Metaphysical Club’ included Charles Sanders Peirce, whose work became the foundation of pragmatism, and William James. Both men were influenced by the philosophical tradition of ‘non-reflexive inquiry’ and their ideas gained prominence through their public lectures in the 1890s.