While grammar deals with the structure of words and sentences, and semantics with their meaning, pragmatics considers their interpretation in language usage depending on the concrete context and social setting of the speech event.


Do you have an idea what it means if you see I’ll be here soon? on a piece of paper found on the floor? Who is I? Where is here? And When is soon? The same message would already be more understandable if you had an appointment with your teacher or your boss at 3 p.m. and upon arriving, you find this note on the door. You know the person, the place and the time, so you will wait a few minutes. These kind of words are called deictic expressions which means they can be interpreted only from the point of view of the speaker, the ‘sender’ of information. Deixis has person, temporal, spatial and social aspects.

If somebody standing in front of you is giving you information about the direction you have to take to get to the museum , their ‘right' is your left! If you use the same informal linguistic forms with your teacher or boss as you do with your friends this can have unpleasant consequences. In the other direction, overly formal linguistic forms can make you seem ridiculous to your peers.

Speech acts

Traditionally, actions are considered more important than just words. But what else can you do when you would like to promise something than recite the sentence I promise? And it's enough for a priest to say: I now pronounce you husband and wife to change your life forever. So there are some speech acts – as the linguist John L. Austin discovered that are performed by words. If some basic conditions (called felicity conditions) are fulfilled then the words pronounced perform the acts described. We can declare people married (if we have the appropriate legal status) as well as promise, threaten and hurt somebody by means of words.

Some speech acts function as declarations and change the world (see the previous example), others as directives manifesting the speaker’s will (I ask you to answer. Don’t do that!), comissives expressing the intent of the speaker (I'll let you go to the movie), expressives illustrating the speaker’s feelings (I'm really sorry. Congratulations!) or merely representatives which state what the speaker believes (Our house is close to the museum).

Speech acts can be direct or indirect. I can ask somebody directly to open the windows if it is too hot in the room or say: It's very hot here. In the right context both sentences can have the same effect.

Presuppositions and implicatures

If someone says: 'My friend's car was stolen’, you are informed not only about the theft of a car, but you also know that this person has at least one friend, and this friend had a car. These two pieces of information are contained in the utterance, but not explicitly expressed, they are presuppositions. Everyday speech is full of presuppositions, which is one reason that foreigners may not understand what seems obvious.

They can be existential as in the previous case, factive when someone says: I’m glad that Peter came or I’m furious that Peter came the fact that Peter came remains true. Some words lexically contain a presupposition: when we finish something, the beginning is presupposed. The sentence You are late again suggests that this is not the first time. Questions like When /why Peter did come? presuppose the fact that Peter came.

If your friend asks: Do you want to go with me to the movies tonight? The simple answer would be yes or no, but often the answer will be: Great!, What’s on? or I have an exam tomorrow or even Leave me alone!. From these answers the conclusions are obvious. These are the cases of conversational implicatures.

Conversational principles

The basis of successful conversation is cooperation between the interlocutors (conversational partners). Grice formulated principles such as: give an informative answer and no more (quantity); your information should be true (quality); be relevant (relation); be perspicuous (manner).

Politeness also is important in the successful conversation. This means that we are aware of another person’s public self image. Politeness appears in greetings and forms of address, in strategies used for asking and refusing etc. Politeness depends on the differences between interlocutors in age, sex, social status as well as the degree of intimacy, and these take very different forms in different cultures.

The basic distinction is between informal and formal or more simply T/V communication, but much more sophisticated distinctions are made in Asian cultures. Neglecting politeness can offend the interlocutor, and you risk not accomplishing your goals.

The linguistic customs and background cultural knowledge are different for different peoples, therefore implicatures and rules of politeness may be different as well. More explicit communication and openness are needed in intercultural contexts. Cross-cultural pragmatics deals with these differences and the strategies used to overcome them.