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Pragmatics
by Dr. Joanna Channell

Introduction

Pragmatics is the study of how people use language. It describes the connection between language and human life.

An important feature of language is that the meaning of a sentence is more than a combination of the meaning of the words it contains: to understand fully, we also use information from the situation where the sentence is used.

Look at the following example:

[Kate is about to go out of her house]
Kate: Now I've lost my keys. No, I haven't. Here they are. I mustn't forget my keys.

From this we understand that:

  1. it is important that Kate takes her keys
  2. she is afraid she might lose them or forget them because on a previous occasion she has forgotten them.

These two ideas do not come from the individual words Kate has spoken. They come from the particular combination of these words with our knowledge of the situation where they are used. Some words show many different pragmatic effects. Forget is one of these, and here we show several contrasting uses of forget.

Language users (either speakers or writers) continually make choices of words and phrases and these choices affect how they are understood.

Compare the following two ways of telling someone the same thing:

[Jim and Sue are discussing their family finances]
Jim: I think we can forget the idea of a vacation this year.

We understand Jim is telling Sue that they will not have enough money to go on vacation. We also understand that Jim is expressing some emotion about the idea. Either he really wants to go on vacation, or he knows that Sue does.

The neutral way of saying the same thing is

[Jim and Sue are discussing their family finances]
Jim: We won't be going on vacation this year.

This example shows us an important choice: between a neutral way of saying something, and a way that emphasizes, or that expresses a personal point of view or an evaluation.
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Why is Pragmatics Important to Language Learners?

All languages have a set of pragmatic conventions about language use. These conventions are social and cultural. So they differ from language to language, from country to country, and from culture to culture.

It is important to learn about the pragmatic conventions of English so as to make full use of the words you know and to avoid mistakes.

Pragmatics in the Macmillan English Dictionary

The Macmillan English Dictionary gives a large amount of pragmatic information about how, when, and why words are used.

Examples are taken from real texts and conversations. It helps you to use words and phrases correctly.

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Types of Pragmatic Information

Language Functions or "Speech Acts"

People use language to do things. For example to:

  • get other people to do things (request, order, persuade)
  • give information
  • express opinions
  • express emotions
  • make commitments (offer, promise, agree to do something)

Look at the following definition for forget it:

This second meaning of forget it is emotional and rather impolite. Compare it with the first meaning of forget it, which is polite, and is often used for refusing an offer from someone else:

"How much do I owe you?" "Oh, forget it, it's nothing."

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Language and Politeness

People also use language to help their social relationships. For example, when you ask someone to do something for you, you usually want to do this politely.

Many entries in the dictionary give information about how to use words politely.

Both may and can are used for asking for, giving, and refusing permission, but may is more formal: You can/may go now. "Can I/May I come with you?" "No, you can't/you may not."

There is also information about impolite and rude language. Politeness is often about taking care of emotions and feelings your own and other people's.

There are many expressions that tell someone else that you are trying to take care of their feelings. Here is an example from the entry for the verb may:

To make a comment about someone else's clothes, even a positive one, could be impolite, especially if you do not know the person well. If I may say so, in this context, means "I know I am saying something risky."

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Attitude and Feelings

Words and phrases can give information about people's attitude and feelings, for example:

One large area of difficulty for learners is that English has many words and phrases that appear to be neutral, but that in fact carry a negative or positive connotation (this has been called "semantic prosody"). Here is an example. Par for the course is used to indicate that something is normal or usual: Delays at airports in the holiday season are par for the course.

However, it is important to know that par for the course very often shows a negative attitude. For example, in this newspaper report of a baseball game, the manager is disappointed with the size of the crowd:

Only 10,000 people came to watch the Jayhawks on Saturday. Manager Bill Brooks said, "I thought we would have pulled in a good crowd after our last few games, but this seems to be par for the course lately."

Notice that the same word can have a positive or a negative meaning, depending on the situation in which it is used. Here is an example:

People learn some of their attitudes from their culture, so learners of English need to learn not only the basic meaning of words but also their cultural impact.

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An example of an attitude that varies from culture to culture is the outward expression of feelings. In some cultures, people express negative emotions such as grief in a very open and public way, while in other cultures people try hard not to show their feelings. In English, if we say that someone bottles up their feelings, we mean that we think that this is bad. But if we say that someone hides their feelings, we make no evaluative comment. Here is an example that makes the negative connotation obvious:

Research shows that some illnesses are more prevalent in those with a tendency to bottle up their emotions.

Generally in American culture people do not express negative emotions such as grief or anger in front of people that they do not know well.

Vague Language

Vague expressions allow speakers and writers to give an appropriate amount of information in a particular context. For example, people are vague because they do not have precise information or, sometimes, they are vague because precise information is not needed.

We show many vague expressions in the dictionary. Here are just two:

The writers here are generalizing and therefore cannot give exact amounts or times.

Cindy: When she called, I was doing the crossword or something.

Cindy wants to focus on the telephone call and what she was doing at the time is not important.

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Further Reading

The classic linguistics text on pragmatics is:
S. Levinson, 1983, Pragmatics, Cambridge University Press

An introductory book that contains tasks and exercises is:
J. Verschueren, 1999, Understanding Pragmatics, Arnold

For more on the topics described here, see:
J. Channell, 1994, Vague Language, Oxford University Press
J. Channell, 1999, "Vagueness in written English" Modern English xTeacher Vol 8, no 4: 26-30


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