Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Pragmatics studies the purposes, effects and implications of the actual use by a speaker of a meaningful piece of language.

explanatory context

Pragmatics is one of the three traditional divisions of semiology. The other two parts of semiotics are syntactics and semantics.


Shaozhong Liu (2005) provides a useful brief account of the history of pragmatics:

Although pragmatics is a relatively new branch of linguistics, research on it can be dated back to ancient Greece and Rome where the term pragmaticus’ is found in late Latin and pragmaticos’ in Greek, both meaning of being practical’. Modern use and current practice of pragmatics is credited to the influence of the American philosophical doctrine of pragmatism. The pragmatic interpretation of semiotics and verbal communication studies in Foundations of the Theory of Signs by Charles Morris (1938), for instance, helped neatly expound the differences of mainstream enterprises in semiotics and linguistics. For Morris, pragmatics studies the relations of signs to interpreters’, while semantics studies the relations of signs to the objects to which the signs are applicable’, and syntactics studies the formal relations of signs to one another.’ By elaborating the sense of pragmatism in his concern of conversational meanings, Grice (1975) enlightened modern treatment of meaning by distinguishing two kinds of meaning, natural and non-natural. Grice suggested that pragmatics should centre on the more practical dimension of meaning, namely the conversational meaning which was later formulated in a variety of ways (Levinson, 1983; Leech, 1983).
Practical concerns also helped shift pragmaticians' focus to explaining naturally occurring conversations which resulted in hallmark discoveries of the Cooperative Principle by Grice (1975) and the Politeness Principle by Leech (1983). Subsequently, Green (1989) explicitly defined pragmatics as natural language understanding. This was echoed by Blakemore (1990) in her Understanding Utterances: The Pragmatics of Natural Language and Grundy (1995) in his Doing Pragmatics. The impact of pragmatism has led to crosslinguistic international studies of language use which resulted in, among other things, Sperber and Wilson's (1986) relevance theory which convincingly explains how people comprehend and utter a communicative act.
The Anglo-American tradition of pragmatic study has been tremendously expanded and enriched with the involvement of researchers mainly from the Continental countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Belgium. A symbol of this development was the establishment of the IPrA (the International Pragmatic Association) in Antwerp in 1987. In its Working Document, IPrA proposed to consider pragmatics as a theory of linguistic adaptation and look into language use from all dimensions (Verschueren, 1987). Henceforward, pragmatics has been conceptualized as to incorporate micro and macro components (Mey, 1993).
Throughout its development, pragmatics has been steered by the philosophical practice of pragmatism and evolving to maintain its independence as a linguistic subfield by keeping to its tract of being practical in treating the everyday concerned meaning.

analytical review

Shaozhong Liu (2005) defined pragmatics as follows:

A subfield of linguistics developed in the late 1970s, pragmatics studies how people comprehend and produce a communicative act or speech act in a concrete speech situation which is usually a conversation (hence *conversation analysis). It distinguishes two intents or meanings in each utterance or communicative act of verbal communication. One is the informative intent or the sentence meaning, and the other the communicative intent or speaker meaning (Leech, 1983; Sperber and Wilson, 1986). The ability to comprehend and produce a communicative act is referred to as pragmatic competence (Kasper, 1997) which often includes one's knowledge about the social distance, social status between the speakers involved, the cultural knowledge such as politeness, and the linguistic knowledge explicit and implicit.

associated issues

Pragmatics has been criticised for lack of focus within linguistics, fuziness of method and asbeing redundant as semantics already deals with issues of meaning in language. However, arguably pragmatics addresses those meanings that semantics overlooks. Despite the criticisms, the impact of pragmatics has been significant in areas such as sociolinguistic conduct, person-to-person interactions, cognition, language teaching, translation and writing. .

related areas

See also






Blakemore, D., 1990, Understanding Utterances: The pragmatics of Natural language, Oxford, Blackwell.

Grice, H. P., 1975, 'Logic and Conversation', in Cole, P. & Morgan, J. (Eds.) Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech acts, New York, Academic Press.

Grundy, P., 1995, Doing Pragmatics, London, Edward Arnold.

Kasper, G., 1997, 'Can Pragmatic Competence Be Taught?', paper delivered at the 1997 TESOL Convention.

Leech, G., 1983, Principles of Pragmatics, London, Longman.

Levinson, S., 1983, Pragmatics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Mey, J., 1993, Pragmatics. An introduction, Oxford, Blackwell.

Morris, C., 1938, 'Foundations of the Theory of Signs', in Carnap, R. et al. (Eds.) International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, 2:1, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Shaozhong Liu, 2005, What is Pragmatics, available at, accessed 31 July 2013, still available 24 December 2016.

Sperber, D. & Wilson, D., 1986, Relevance: Communication and cognition, Oxford, Blackwell.

Verschueren, J., 1987, Pragmatics as a Theory of Linguistic Adaptation, Working Document #1, Antwerp: International Pragmatics Association.

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