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The more we study conversation or any kind of discourse,
the more we realize that it is not so much what the
sentences literally mean that matters, as how they reveal
the intentions and strategies of the speakers themselves.
What is pragmatics? Why do we need pragmatic knowledge in
Many authors have defined Pragmatics in
different ways, and in these definitions,
elements such as context, meaning
beyond literal meaning, speech acts,
deixis, understatement or implicature are
presented as important components of
this discipline.
Leech explains that both Semantics and
Pragmatics are concerned with meaning,
but the difference between them lies in
two different uses of the verb to mean:
[1] What does X mean?
[2] What did you mean by X?
Semantics would deal with [1], and
Pragmatics with [2]. Thus, it is important
to point out that pragmatics is defined
with respect to a speaker or user of the
Non-literal or indirect meaning
One of the important features of
language has to do with appropriate
ways of using language to get business
Appropriateness is thought in relation
to those who use the language and
those to whom it is directed
Read and look at this comic strip about
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Do you
find it appropriate?
Is there anything strange about it? If so,
what is it and why is it strange?
Human discourse is full of nonliteral, indirect meanings.
Consider the mother’s question
in the strip on the right. Why is it
indirect? What does she mean
with her question?
Many appropriate utterances
are indirect. Sometimes
appropriateness requires
indirectness, as for instance in:
A: What do you think of Paula? Is
she pretty?
B: Well, she’s certainly a very
good student.
But how do we get from literal to nonliteral, indirect meaning? We
obviously have to draw inferences or
come to conclusions as to what the
speaker is intending to convey. So
what the patient in this cartoon does
is verbalize the inference she made
from what the doctor said.
In the example below:
Radion removes dirt AND odours
We infer that other washing powders
leave our clothes smelling bad, even
though we are not told such a thing.
So communication is not only about a
speaker encoding a message and a
hearer decoding it. The receiver must
also draw an inference as to what is
conveyed beyond what is stated.
The fact that some meanings are matters of
inference implies that the utterances we encounter
are somehow unclear or ambiguous, i.e., underdetermined. This means that an utterance might
have several possible meanings and that the
inferences we draw determine which of these
possible meanings is the one the addressee thinks
the speaker is intending.
The picture on the right is an example of image
undeterminacy or ambiguity. Depending on how
you look at it, it may be the picture of an old lady or
of a young one. Can you see them both?
Thus, the following utterance is under-determined
in that it would mean different things depending
on whether it’s uttered by most people or by a
university lecturer:
I’ve just finished a book
Our ability to determine what speakers intend
even when their utterances are under-determined
is crucial for a better and successful
communication exchange.
Context is a crucial aspect for determining the
meaning of an utterance. And we refer here not
only to linguistic context, but to the physical,
social and cultural contexts as well.
The same utterance in different contexts may
mean completely different things. Think of the
I love people with good manners
Said by a person in a conversation about
good manners.
b) Said by a person after someone else has
been rude to her.
Do a) and b) mean exactly the same?
Relevance has been seen as the most important principle
in accounting for the way we understand language. Since
we take every utterance as relevant, we understand
utterances in whatever way will make them as relevant
as possible.
So, for instance in the example of the sign pinned to a
chair that reads:
Sit down with care. Legs can come off
It is obviously more relevant to assume that it refers to
the legs of the chair rather than to those of the person
sitting down.
Think of the nowadays famous T.V commercial where
George Cloney says: “Nespresso; what else?
What is the most relevant assertion intended by the
“As we try to determine what people
mean by what they say, we usually need
to accept or accommodate a good deal
of information which we feel is known to
both the speaker and ourselves”.
This background knowledge or
accommodation is essential to making
sense of exchanges like the following,
taken from another of the Nespresso
“We’ve run out of capsules up there”
“Heaven can wait, George, but not for
its capsules”
Think of all the information we have to
accommodate in order to understand the
real meaning of this exchange between
George and John.
We usually provide some sort of comment on
how our utterance fits into the discourse as a
whole, or on how we want to be understood.
When we do this, we make it easier for our
interlocutor(s) to understand what we mean. That
is why reflexive uses of language as the following
are so common:
Bill Clinton (on his relationship with Monica
“Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms
Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it
was wrong”.
Here ‘indeed’, ‘in fact’ and the emphatic ‘did’ are
examples of reflexive uses of language which tell
us about Clinton’s commitment to the truth of
what he is saying
Pragmatic misfires occur when a given utterance does not have the expected pragmatic
effect. In spite of the negative effect they may have, they are important because they tell us
-by showing us the effect of not achieving the norm- that there are expected norms for talk.
The following utterance was considered to be a misfire when a reader understood that the
suit was a piece of clothing (when in fact it referred to a legal action),
The tailor pressed one suit in the municipal court
And the following headline was a misfire when the reader interpreted that the gun had been
found beside the victim (and not that the victim had found it (which was the intended
Stolen gun found by the victim
This kind of misfires reminds us of the great care speakers need to exercise in order to
convey the intended meaning successfully. However, misfires are rare, and normally speakers
are able to convey the meanings they intend with remarkable consistency.
Although all the above features have been treated separately for the sake of
clarity, the fact is that all or most of them normally appear together in a
bundle, as can be seen in the following utterance (made by a dancing
teacher in her class to one of her new students):
Is she your partner? I mean, are you
going to dance together?
We can see here how the features of everyday language studied in this
unit (appropriateness, indeterminacy, inference, etc.) work together in
order to make the utterance a pragmatic whole: 1) the question the
teacher makes is an appropriate way to ask about dancing partners in a
dancing class, but considering the student is new, the teacher realizes she
has to reformulate her question in order to make sure the student does
not misinterpret the question as one about his private life. Thus we see
the element of reflexivity in the pragmatic marker I mean.
Therefore, the question Is she your partner? is underdetermined and can become a misfire if the addressee
does not have a common background and knowledge
of the terminology used in a dancing class and of the
context in general. This knowledge will make him work
out the right inference as to what the teacher means
by “partner” (i.e. ‘dancing partner’, not ‘girl-friend’),
therefore making the former interpretation the most
relevant. In this way, the student will learn to
accommodate this background information in order to
make the correct interpretation of the teacher’s
Speech Acts: How do we do things with words?
John Austin and, later on, John Searle
developed a theory of speech acts, based
on the premise that language is used to
perform actions.
Austin (1962) argued against the view that
truth conditions should be considered
central to language understanding, by
developing a general theory of
illocutionary acts which in turn became a
central concern of general pragmatic
Austin showed the world that, when
saying something, we are also DOING
something; we are not just pronouncing
some words, but also performing some
kind of action.
So when saying something, three kinds of acts are simultaneously performed:
1) LOCUTIONARY ACT  The utterance of a sentence with a determinate
sense and meaning.
2) ILLOCUTIONARY ACT  The making of a statement, offer, promise, etc.
in uttering a sentence, by virtue of the conventional force associated with
3) PERLOCUTIONARY ACT  The bringing about of effects on the audience
by means of uttering a sentence, such effects being special to the
circumstances of utterance.
(Austin, 1962)
A: It’s cold in here
B: O.K., I’ll close the window
The mere act
of uttering
the words
“It’s cold in
here”, with
their literal
sense and
The act of
indirectly (in
this case)
someone to
close the
The effect of
the illocution
on the
addresse . In
this case, (B)
goes and
closes the
B) The ‘Nespresso’ example
When John Malcovich (God) in
the Nespresso commercial says to
George Clooney:
“Heaven can wait, John, but not
for its capsules”
God’s words may look as an
assertion, but if you read
between the lines in order to
understand the humor of the
commercial, you realize that in
fact, what God is doing with his
words is to threaten George.
So in this example:
1) The locutionary act is the act
of uttering the words
“Heaven can wait, George,
but…”, which have a given
sense and reference.
2) The illocutionary act is a
threat (i.e. “If you don’t give
me the capsules, heaven will
not wait for you to visit us up
there” (an consequently we’ll
let you die)
1) The perlocutionary act will
be the bringing about, by
means of these words, of the
inevitable effect : George will
give God the Nespresso
capsules (in order to
‘postpone’ his ‘visit to
You have now enough information to
try Unit 1 activities.