Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What does pragmatics include?

The lack of a clear consensus appears in the way that no two published accounts list the same categories of pragmatics in quite the same order. But among the things we should know about are:
  • Speech act theory
  • Felicity conditions
  • Conversational implicature
  • The cooperative principle
  • Conversational maxims
  • Relevance
  • Politeness
  • Phatic tokens
  • Deixis

Conversational implicature

In a series of lectures at Harvard University in 1967, the English language philosopherH.P. (Paul) Grice outlined an approach to what he termed conversational implicature - how hearers manage to work out the complete message when speakers mean more than they say. An example of what Grice meant by conversational implicature is the utterance:
“Have you got any cash on you?”
where the speaker really wants the hearer to understand the meaning:
“Can you lend me some money? I don't have much on me.”
The conversational implicature is a message that is not found in the plain sense of the sentence. The speaker implies it. The hearer is able to infer (work out, read between the lines) this message in the utterance, by appealing to the rules governing successful conversational interaction. Grice proposed that implicatures like the second sentence can be calculated from the first, by understanding three things:
  • The usual linguistic meaning of what is said.
  • Contextual information (shared or general knowledge).
  • The assumption that the speaker is obeying what Grice calls the cooperative principle.

Conversational maxims and the cooperative principle

The success of a conversation depends upon the various speakers' approach to the interaction. The way in which people try to make conversations work is sometimes called the cooperative principle. We can understand it partly by noting those people who are exceptions to the rule, and are not capable of making the conversation work. We may also, sometimes, find it useful deliberately to infringe or disregard it - as when we receive an unwelcome call from a telephone salesperson, or where we are being interviewed by a police officer on suspicion of some terrible crime.
Paul Grice proposes that in ordinary conversation, speakers and hearers share a cooperative principle. Speakers shape their utterances to be understood by hearers. The principle can be explained by four underlying rules or maxims.

They are the maxims of quality, quantity, relevance and manner.
  • Quality: speakers should be truthful. They should not say what they think is false, or make statements for which they have no evidence.
  • Quantity: a contribution should be as informative as is required for the conversation to proceed. It should be neither too little, nor too much. (It is not clear how one can decide what quantity of information satisfies the maxim in a given case.)
  • Relevance: speakers' contributions should relate clearly to the purpose of the exchange.
  • Manner: speakers' contributions should be perspicuous: clear, orderly and brief, avoiding obscurity and ambiguity.

The politeness principle

The politeness principle is a series of maxims, which Geoff Leech has proposed as a way of explaining how politeness operates in conversational exchanges. Leech defines politeness as forms of behaviour that establish and maintain comity. That is the ability of participants in a social interaction to engage in interaction in an atmosphere of relative harmony. In stating his maxims Leech uses his own terms for two kinds of illocutionary acts. He calls representatives “assertives”, and calls directives “impositives”.
  • Each maxim is accompanied by a sub-maxim (between square brackets), which is of less importance. These support the idea that negative politeness (avoidance of discord) is more important than positive politeness (seeking concord).
  • Not all of the maxims are equally important. For instance, tact influences what we say more powerfully than does generosity, while approbation is more important than modesty.
  • Note also that speakers may adhere to more than one maxim of politeness at the same time. Often one maxim is on the forefront of the utterance, with a second maxim being invoked by implication.
  • If politeness is not communicated, we can assume that the politeness attitude is absent.

Phatic tokens

These are ways of showing status by orienting comments to oneself, to the other, or to the general or prevailing situation (in England this is usually the weather).
  • Self-oriented phatic tokens are personal to the speaker: “I'm not up to this” or “My feet are killing me”.
  • Other-oriented tokens are related to the hearer: “Do you work here?” or “You seem to know what you're doing”.
  • neutral token refers to the context or general state of affairs: “Cold, isn't it?” or “Lovely flowers”.
A superior shows consideration in an other-oriented token, as when the Queen says to the factory worker: “It must be jolly hard to make one of those”. The inferior might respond with a self-oriented token, like “Hard work, this”. On the surface, there is an exchange of information. In reality there is a suggestion and acceptance of a hierarchy of status. The factory worker would be unlikely to respond with, “Yes, but it's not half as hard as travelling the world, trooping the colour, making a speech at Christmas and dissolving Parliament.”

Criticisms of pragmatics

Some of the criticisms directed at pragmatics include these:
  • It does not have a clear-cut focus
  • Its principles are vague and fuzzy
  • It is redundant - semantics already covers the territory adequately
In defending pragmatics we can say that:
  • The study of speech acts has illuminated social language interactions
  • It covers things that semantics (hitherto) has overlooked
  • It can help inform strategies for teaching language
  • It has given new insights into understanding literature
  • The theories of the cooperative principle and politeness principle have provided insights into person-to-person interactions.


Some linguists (Jackson H and Stockwell P) single out relevance as of greater importance than Grice recognised. Assuming that the cooperative principle is at work in most conversations, we can see how hearers will try to find meaning in utterances that seem meaningless or irrelevant. We assume that there must be a reason for these. Jackson and Stockwell cite a conversation between a shopkeeper and a 16-year old customer:
Customer: Just these, please.
Shopkeeper: Are you eighteen?
Customer: Oh, I'm from Middlesbrough.
Shopkeeper: (after a brief pause) OK (serves beer to him).

Felicity conditions

These are conditions necessary to the success of a speech act. They take their name from a Latin root - “felix” or “happy”. They are conditions needed for success or achievement of a performative. Only certain people are qualified to declare war, baptize people or sentence convicted felons. In some cases, the speaker must be sincere (as in apologizing or vowing). And external circumstances must be suitable: “Can you give me a lift?” requires that the hearer has a motor vehicle, is able to drive it somewhere and that the speaker has a reason for the request. It may be that the utterance is meant as a joke or sarcasm, in which case a different interpretation is in order. Loosely speaking, felicity conditions are of three kinds: preparatory conditions, conditions for execution andsincerity conditions.


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). 


Deixis is also mentioned as indexicals. By deixis, we mean pointers or something that points to other things. In order words, indexicals are linguistic forms or expressions that refer to other things. In a sense, deixis can be a synonym of language expressions. For that reason, deixis is one of the essential and earliest marking elements of pragmatics, and falls under pragmatic investigation at the very birth of this independent field of learning.

Speech acts

Making a statement may be the paradigmatic use of language, but there are all sorts of other things we can do with words. We can make requests, ask questions, give orders, make promises, give thanks, offer apologies, and so on. Moreover, almost any speech act is really the performance of several acts at once, distinguished by different aspects of the speaker's intention: there is the act of saying something, what one does in saying it, such as requesting or promising, and how one is trying to affect one's audience.

The theory of speech acts is partly taxonomic and partly explanatory. It must systematically classify types of speech acts and the ways in which they can succeed or fail. It must reckon with the fact that the relationship between the words being used and the force of their utterance is often oblique. 

What is pragmatics?

 Pragmatics is a relatively late comer in linguistics. It enters the linguistic scene at the end of the 1970s. However, to many people, this is a rather new area.  

“We human beings are odd compared with our nearest animal relatives. Unlike them, we can say what we want, when we want. All normal humans can produce and understand any number of new words and sentences. Humans use the multiple options of language often without thinking. But blindly, they sometimes fall into its traps. They are like spiders who exploit their webs, but themselves get caught in the sticky strands.” 

Jean Aitchison