Linguistics. Inference. Uses of language. Contextual meaning. Kinds of meaning. Context coding. Speech Acts. Intentional Meaning. Cooperative Principle. Implicature. Metaphor. Relevant theories

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0. Index

  • What is pragmatics?

  • Contextual meaning

    • Kinds of meaning

    • Context coding

    • Speech Acts and Intentional Meaning

      • Speech Acts

      • Intentional Meaning

      • Gricean Pragmatics

        • Cooperative Principle

        • Implicatures

        • Relevance

          • Inference and Context

          • Explicature

          • Metaphor

          • What is pragmatics?

          • Pragmatics is an approach to discourse in which three concepts are concerned: meaning, context and communication. In order to elucidate the term “Pragmatics” we provide a set of definitions from different resources.

            According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online:

            In linguistics and philosophy, the study of the use of natural language in communication; more generally, the study of the relations between languages and their users.

            It is sometimes defined in contrast with linguistic semantics, which can be described as the study of the rule systems that determine the literal meanings of linguistic expressions. Pragmatics is then the study of how both literal and nonliteral aspects of communicated linguistic meaning are determined by principles that refer to the physical or social context (broadly construed) in which language is used. Among these aspects are conversational and conventional “implicatures” (e.g., “John has three sons” conversationally implicates that John has no more than three sons; “He was poor but honest” conventionally implicates an unspecified contrast between poverty and honesty).


            And following the Merriam Webster definition:

          • a branch of semiotic that deals with the relation between signs or linguistic expressions and their users.

          • a branch of linguistics that is concerned with the relationship of sentences to the environment in which they occur.


            For Jacob Mey:

            Language is the chief means by which people communicate. The use of language, for various purposes, is governed by the conditions of society, inasmuch as these conditions determine the users' access to, and control of, their communicative means.

            Hence, pragmatics is the study of the conditions of human language uses as these are determined by the context of society.

            (Italics taken from the original)

            In Katz (1977:19):

            “Grammars are theories about the structure of sentences types…Pragmatics theories, in contrast…explicate the reasoning of speakers and hearers…” trying to establish a link between what is said and the semantic proposition behind it.

            According to Levinson (1983:9):

            Pragmatics is the study of those relations between language and context that are grammaticalized, or encoded in the structure of a language.

            There are two tendencies in current pragmatics. On the one hand, a kind of pragmatics concerned with analyzing language in relation to its communicative function, where the analysis flows from language to context in order to provide and adequate description of the structure of the linguistic code. On the other hand, a sort of pragmatics dealing with the context in which the statement occurs and how this context determines the meaning of this statement, an example of this is Grice's theory. Here the mechanisms of communication, which explain the meanings of the utilized linguistic signs, are analyzed.

            2. Contextual meaning

            2.1. Kinds of meaning

            There are two kinds of meaning, and they include other types of meaning: semantic meaning and pragmatic meaning.

            The semantic meaning is expressed by statements. Those statements are linguistic units (both spoken and written) inherently contextualized, that is statements are sentences in use. To be able to interpret statements we need a minimum context.

            Our languages are cultural products and therefore their phonic, syntactic and semantic structures are conventional, that is, they are not “natural”. Thus, sentences have conventional (as long as languages are conventional codes) or grammatical (the code itself) meaning. As an example of this we can see the following sentence:

          • The boy is sick.

          • This sentence is compounded of lexical elements combined following grammatical criteria; therefore this example reproduces a correct sentence. If it would not have followed these rules it would have been an ungrammatical sentence. Both the lexical meanings and the grammatical rules are conventional, that is, arbitrary and consolidated through time.

            Semantics studies the linguistic meaning (semantic meaning), which is based on the relationships between the expression and the world, that is, the conditions of veracity of the sentence. Thus, the relationship between the described situation and the world must be verified in order to explain the meaning of (1). The content of the sentence, which is called proposition, is true if the boy is sick.

            However, speakers do not only use sentence (1) to say that the boy is sick, which is its semantic meaning, but it can have other meanings in a particular context. For instance, if a mother uses this example when she is invited to go shopping, it may imply that she cannot go out; and this is what we call pragmatic meaning. Therefore, it can be said that sentences, once they are put in context, can have new meanings. Semantics relates linguistic forms to the objects of the world represented by them, however, it does not deal with the reasons why speakers use such forms in a particular context, a task done by pragmatics.

              • Context coding

            It is not always easy to distinguish the differences between the semantic and the pragmatic meaning. Consider the following sentence:

          • They will not be interested in a book like that.

          • According to the grammatical rules of English, this example is a correct sentence. However, it is not easy to establish its semantic meaning, since there are elements in (2) that have no meaning without a context. These words are they and like that. What are their meanings? Every English speaker can recognize these items and even find them in the dictionary, but the dictionary cannot help us to understand (2), because they need a context. Firstly, we cannot know to whom they is intended to refer. The adjective like that has also no meaning if it is not associated to a context.

            Human languages have grammatical elements, such as deictic expressions, which encode some aspects of the context. Deictic words can be personal pronouns, which identify the participants of the communicative act, and adverbs like here, there, now, yesterday.

            Deictic elements are in the boundary line between semantics and pragmatics. Thus, many linguists consider the work of pragmatics begins with deictic expressions and other similar elements which belong to the grammar of a language but are context dependent. Whenever we have to resort to the context in order to attach meaning to linguistic expressions we are doing pragmatics.

            Nevertheless, this previous linguistic stance does not take into account many phenomena that have to do with the language, its structure and its semantic meaning. The following statement, which took place during a meal, has a pragmatic meaning which is not directly related to its semantic meaning:

          • These vegetable soups are always a bit tasteless, aren't they?

          • The person that said that did not want to inform his/her addressees about the main qualities of this kind of soups, but rather he/she would have wanted to mean that the soup was bland and he/she would like to put more salt in it. The purpose of (3) could be to ask salt without offending the person who had done the soup.

            The example above shows that there are disparities between the literal meaning and the “real” meaning, i.e. what the speaker wants to transmit. Therefore, pragmatics has to analyze not only the production and interpretation of the grammaticalized linguistic elements, but also the non- grammaticalized.

            Generally, we understand by context the collection of knowledge and beliefs shared by the participants in a verbal communication. These knowledge and beliefs are relevant to produce and interpret the statements.

            As regards to Pragmatics, it is important to distinguish three kinds of context: linguistic, situational and sociocultural. The first consists of the linguistic material which precedes and follows a statement. The linguistic context is also known as co-text. The situational context contains the information about the immediate physical material surrounding the situation. Finally, the sociocultural context is the configuration of the data taken from social and cultural influence on verbal behaviour and its uses according to different circumstances. For example, there are social rules to greet or rules in order to know which linguistic register use in a particular situation.

            Frames are the structure containing the whole communicative system. They are one of the most interesting aspects of the sociocultural context. They are also very important in relation to Pragmatics because statements are always interpreted within a metacommunicative frame which qualifies the situation of the communicative act and the participants. These frames provide the data necessary for us to communicate. This information can be stereotyped structures of situations or concepts which allow us to associate some meanings with other meanings. For example, if someone says “library”, we will automatically think in a context in which there are books, shelves, librarians, etc.

            In situations of ritualized speaking like greetings, the sentences truth value is not so important because they are highly context dependent. Therefore, we say want we want to say in every occasion. However, we also say what we are expected to say since our linguistic behaviour is codified by social rules. These codifications belong to the context because they determine the meaning of the statements.

            3. Speech Acts and Intentional Meaning

            3.1. Speech acts

            Speech acts are mainly acts of communication. The main idea of the speech act theory is that language is not only utilized to describe the world but also to change reality. In view of the fact that a speech act is an act of communication it succeeds if its audience identifies the speaker's intention that means, the attitude being expressed. As an example of this a statement expresses a belief, a request entails a desire and an apology expresses a regret. This was already studied by some language philosophers before the seventies like John Austin, who is considered as the pioneer of modern pragmatics and whose theory was revised and consolidated by his disciple John Searle.

            At first Austin developed a theory with two kinds of statements in which one, assertive (4), described things as true or false and the other, performative (5), attached to the felicity conditions. These conditions are necessary to the success of a speech act. An essential fact for the felicity conditions is that the people uttering the speech act must be qualified to do it. As an example of this not everyone is allowed to declare war, to baptize people or to pass a sentence.

            (4) It is raining.

            (5) I promise to stay.

            Performative statements appoint exactly the action done when we utter the statement, e.g. declare, order, promise, baptize, swear

            Afterwards Austin reformulated his initial theory when he realized that assertive statements are used to comply with acts too, although they have no explicit performative verbs. Thus, (4) is an assertion even though it does not contain the verb assert in it.

            From this new perspective we can extract three different speech acts: illocutionary act, locutionary act and perlocutionary act. The speech act from which we can extract the meaning is the locutionary act (6).

            (6) It's snowing

            The illocutionary act is the force, the capacity to do something (7).

            (7) Welcome back home.

            Finally the perlocutionary act provokes a set of effects on the interlocutor (persuade, surprise, scare…) (8)

            (8) Really?

            Searle considers speech acts as linguistic communicative units performed following a set of rules. These rules, closely related to linguistic conditions, define speech acts. These directives are not only used to regulate but they also create or define a behavioural manner.

            Searle declared that there is a correlation between linguistic forms and speech acts and thus assertions are realized using declarative statements and questions by means of interrogatives, when language is being used literally. However speakers also use language in an indirect manner (non-literal) many times, therefore the theory must provide an adequate explanation.

            Indirect speech acts are considered by Searle as the superimposition of two acts: a literal and a non-literal. The hearer interprets the “true” speech act (non-literal) due to the sociocultural and situational contexts where the act is performed and to his / her ability to interpret the speaker's intention. As an example of this:

            (9) Can you pass me the salt, please?

            Here the semantic meaning would ask about the hearer's ability to perform the action, whereas the pragmatic meaning would order the hearer to pass the salt to the speaker.

            3.2. Intentional Meaning

            The intentional meaning is a basic aspect of pragmatics. It is based on the fact that what is said has a meaning that depends on the used expressions and it is subject to its veracity. What we want to say has pragmatic force and it is pragmatics that conjectures the principles that allow us to interpret this force. In the following example:

            (10) It's cold here, isn't it?

            We do not only interpret the natural meaning (the fact that it is cold) but also the intentional one that provokes a reaction on the hearer (close the window or switch the heating on). Thus, communication is realized when the hearer interprets correctly the speaker's intention and not only the literal meaning.

            Pragmatics studies the intentional meaning, what someone wants to say. The philosopher Paul Grice developed two key theories in pragmatics: the non-natural meaning and implicatures. As regards to speaker meaning Grice separates non-natural meaning from natural meaning. Natural meaning berefts of human intentionality, whereas non-natural meaning is equivalent to intentional meaning. As said in Schiffrin (1994: 192) “As Grice (p. 58) states: “´A meant-nn something by X` is (roughly) equivalent to ´A intended to utterance of X to produce some effect in an audience by means of the recognition of this intention`.” From all the previous said we can deduce that the natural meaning follows the relation between cause and effect, as for example

            (11) Those spots mean measles.

            Whereas the non-natural meaning has a conventional meaning that is an invented meaning:

            (12) Those three rings on the bell (of the bus) mean that the bus is full.

            4. Gricean Pragmatics.

            4.1. Cooperative Principle.

            According to Grice's theory there is a previous tacit agreement to collaborate when communicating, and Grice names this Cooperative Principle (CP).

            “Grice proposes a general principle which participants will be expected to observe: “Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.”” (Schiffrin, 1994: 194).

            The Cooperative Principle consists of four specific maxims:


          • Make your contribution as informative as is required;

          • Do not make your contribution more informative than required.

          • Quality:

          • Do not say what you believe to be false;

          • Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

          • Relation:

            Make your contribution relevant.


            Be perspicuous, and specifically:

          • avoid obscurity

          • avoid ambiguity

          • be brief

          • be orderly.

              • Implicatures

            Implicatures are a kind of pragmatic meaning. When talking about implicatures we refer to

            “Something that is implied by a speaker uttering a sentence, without being part of the truth-conditional content of that sentence. The notion was introduced (…) to explain how speakers can mean more with their utterance than what they say. Some implicatures where conventionally tied to specific words (like but, differing from and in its conventional implicature of contrast), others follow on the basis of the Cooperative Principle and its maxims. A well-known example are the scalar implicatures, where a weaker term on a scale implicates the negation of a stronger term”.


            There are two types of implicatures: conversational implicature and conventional implicature.

            Conversational implicatures are not dependent on the conventional meaning but on the principles ruling the conversation. These kinds of statements can be easily cancelled precisely because they are implied by the context by a following realization. Thus, I can say

            (13) Paul ate some of the Easter eggs.

            and add:

            - in fact he ate all of them.

            In this way, the context added by this second utterance “cancels” the implicature of the first sentence. Thus the conversational implicature is added by the second utterance.

            Conventional implicatures are not dependent on any conversational context but they have meaning by themselves. Their additional meanings are inner in this linguistic expressions. An illustrative example of this

            (14) Finally, Susan managed to submit her essay on time.

            This statement means that Susan submitted the essay and implies that she did a great effort to achieve it. The idea of the effort made by Susan is implicit in the verbal construction to manage to + infinitive, a conventional implicature of this expression. Furthermore the adverb finally also gives the idea of effort.

            Therefore, “Conventional implicatures are non-truth-conditional inferences that are not derived from superordinate pragmatic principles like the maxims, but are simple attached by convention to particular lexical items”. (Levinson 1983: 127)

            Implicatures take place in the following cases:

          • when the speaker follows the maxims.

          • As an example of this,

            A- I have a terrible headache.

          • I have an aspirin.

          • Thus, this statement implies that the B is offering An an aspirin.

            (16) when the speaker seems to violate the maxims but he / she does not.

            A trainer recommends a bad although hard-worker football player called Michael to another football trainer and says:

            - Michael is a very responsible guy. He attends every training session and works very hard.

            The trainer offers less information than it is expected and thus, seems to violate the principle of quantity. Thus, the addressee draws the implicature that Michael is a bad footballer.

            (17) when the speaker does not need to obey one of the maxims to obey a more important one that is the one which will show the implicatures. B does not know who exactly wrote Miss Dalloway but he/she just knows the author's nationality.

          • Who wrote Miss Dalloway?

          • An English writer.

          • Due to the fact that B does not know who the writer is, he / she breaks the quantity maxim in order not to violate the quality maxim.

            (18) when the speaker deliberately violates a maxim.

            BOY- (ninth time) When are we going to the park?

            FATHER- When your father finishes his work and stands up and has a shower…

            The father violates deliberately the maxims of quantity, relation and manner in order to make the boy infer from his answer his attitude, because the boy had been too insistent.

          • Relevance Theory

          • Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson proposed this theory, one of the most important in current pragmatics. They followed Grice's model, but their theory proposes a different manner to explain the linguistic process of communication.

            As regards to CP, Sperber and Wilson said that interlocutors are cooperative because they want to obtain cognitive effects i.e. knowledge of the world. Every intentional statement has relevance guarantee. According to Sperber and Wilson, when we communicate we have the task to improve our knowledge. Relevance guarantee allows us to think that if a person emits a deliberate verbal stimulus, we must pay attention and interpret it, because it produces the cognitive effects which are relevant for us.

            5.1. Inferences

            Inference is a deductive reasoning process which starts from a set of premises to achieve a conclusion following these premises. Addresses select from what is said the most relevant premises following the relevance principle. As an example of this

            (19) A.-Are you coming to the stag night?

            B.-I've spent all my money.

            According to the relevance theory, A creates a context in order to understand B answers. This context is the one B expected A to create. From the several premises A can find in the created context, he / she infers the most important inference: the fact that B is not going to the stag night.

            In the relevance theory the context is defined as psychological, and not social or cultural. The important issue is the fact that the participants share a similar context, and thus they both know the same and the communicative act is successful.

            5.2. Explicature

            The notion of explicatures is first introduced by Sperber and Wilson (1995: 182) to complement Gricean's notion of implicature. They were attempting to show that pragmatic inferences contribute both to what is implied and to what is explicitly communicated. Sperber and Wilson defined explicature as an “explicit” assumption communicated by an utterance.

            Thus, the explicature is the proposition taken from conventionally expressed and from the disambiguation, enrichment and reference assignation.

            In this way, explicatures and implicatures are very close but whereas explicatures are described as developments of logical forms, implicatures are shown as expansions or completions of semantic contents.

            5.3. Metaphor.

            The important issue in communicating is not the literal truth but being relevant in the utterances performed.

            (20) Tom is on holidays in Cea and meets Mary. They are talking about who they are from. Tom answers:

            -I live in Cangas.

            This statement is relevant because Tom wants Mary to infer the whole set of implicatures that can be taken from (11): the fact that he lives in Galicia, on the coast of Pontevedra (and not in Costa Brava or Ourense), and that she can visit him anytime in Cangas. Tom sets the truth of these implications, although not the literal meaning of the statement he gave to communicate.

            (21) exemplifies Sperber & Wilson's loose talk. For these authors metaphors are a subtype of loose talk and can be analyzed in the same manner. Metaphor's literal meaning is always inappropriate.

            Metaphors are more difficult to understand, however they produce a greater cognitive effect.


            Katz, Jerry J. 1977: Propositional Structure and Illocutionary Force. New York: Crowell.

            Levinson, Stephen C. 1983: Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

            Mey, Jacob L. 1993: Pragmatics. An introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

            Reyes, Graciela 1995: El abecé de la Pragmática. Madrid: Arco Libros.

            Schiffrin, Deborah. 1994: Approaches to Discourse. Oxford: Blackwell.

            Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson 1986: Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Cambridge: Mass. Harvard University Press.