Linguistics 001     Lecture 13    Pragmatics

Pragmatics is the study of "how to do things with words" (the name of a well known book by the philosopher J.L. Austin), or perhaps "how people do things with words" (to be more descriptive about it).

Pragmatics starts from the observation that people use language to accomplish certain kinds of acts, broadly known as speech acts, and distinct from physical acts like drinking a glass of water, or mental acts like thinking about drinking a glass of water. Speech acts include asking for a glass of water, promising to drink a glass of water, threatening to drink a glass of water, ordering someone to drink a glass of water, and so on.

Most of these ought really to be called "communicative acts", since speech and even language are not strictly required. Thus someone can ask for a glass of water by pointing to a pitcher and miming the act of drinking.

It's common to divide speech acts into two categories: direct and indirect.

Direct Speech Acts

There are three basic types of direct speech acts, and they correspond to three special syntactic types that seem to occur in most of the world's languages. Examples are given in English, French and Buang (a Malayo-Polynesian language of Papua New Guinea


Speech Act Sentence

Function Examples
Assertion Declarative. conveys information; is true or false "Jenny got an A on the test"
"Les filles ont pris des photos."('The girls took photos')
"Biak eko nos." ('Biak took the food')
Question Interrogative elicits information " Did Jenny get an A on the test?"
"Les filles ont-elles pris des photos?"('Did the girls take photos')
"Biak eko nos me? "('Did Biak take the food')
Orders and Requests Imperative causes others to behave in certain ways "Get an A on the test!"
"Prenez des photos!"('Take some photos!')
"Goko nos! "('Take the food!')

Although assertions, questions and orders are fairly universal, and most of the world's languages have separate syntactic constructions that distinguish them, other speech acts do not have a syntactic construction that is specific to them. Consider the English sentence,

(a) If you cross that line, I'll shoot you!

Most English speakers would have no trouble identifying such an utterance as a threat. However, English has no special sentence form for threats. The if-construction used in (a) is not specific to the speech act of threatening. Such a construction might also express a promise, as in:

(b) If you get all A's, I'll buy you a car!

or simply a cause and effect relationship between physical events:

(c) If you heat water to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it will boil.

A consideration of the syntactic means available for expressing the various speech acts leads us to see that even for the three basic speech acts laid out in the table above, speakers may choose means of expression other than the basic syntactic type associated with the speech act in question.

To some extent, this just reflects the existence of a diversity of means of expression, but a more pervasive reason is that speakers may use indirect rather than direct speech acts.

Indirect Speech Acts

Returning to the speech act of questioning, we can easily come up with a number of alternate ways to ask the same question by using sentence types other than interrogative. Let's look again at the interrogative sentence:

(d1) Did Jenny get an A on the test?

A positive answer ("yes") to that question would give the questioner the actual answer she wanted, but now consider (d2)

(d2) Do you know if Jenny got an A on the test?

This is still in the form of a question, but it probably is not an inquiry about what you know. Most of the time, the answer "yes, I do" would be ostentatiously uncooperative. The normal answer we would expect in real life would be "Yes, she did", or "No, she only got a B", or something of the sort. Here the reply is directed to the speech act meaning, not the literal meaning. A simple "yes" answer that responds to the literal meaning would usually be taken for an uncooperative answer in actual social life (for example "Yes, I do") would be heard as "Yes, I do, but I'm not necessarily going to tell you". So, (d2) functions as an indirect question.

Other indirect ways of asking the same question, using the declarative form, are listed in (d3) and (d4).

(d3) I'd like to know if Jenny got an A on the test.
(d4) I wonder whether Jenny got an A on the test.

In the case of the speech act of requesting or ordering, speakers can be even more indirect. As in the case of questions, conventional indirect requests may, taken literally, be questions about the addressee's knowledge or ability. Here is a direct request:

(e1)( Please) close the window.

Conventional indirect requests may be expressed as questions as in (e2) and (e3), or as assertions (e4). In context, (e5) and (e6) may also be immediately understood as a complaints, meant as an indirect request for action.

(e2) Could you close the window?
(e3) Would you mind closing the window?
(e4) I would like you to close the window.
(e5) The window is still open!
(e6) I must have asked you a hundred times to keep that window closed!


One subtype of direct speech acts exists in English and in many other languages, and allows us to expand the kinds of direct speech acts we can make beyond the three basic types that have their own special syntax. These are the direct speech acts that use performative verbs to accomplish their ends. Performative verbs can also be used with the three basic speech act types as exemplified in (f) - (h), associated with making statements, requests and commands respectively:

(f) I assert that Jenny got an A on the test.
(g) I ask you who took the photos.
(h) I order you to close the window.

To these can be added performative verbs that allow us to directly convey promises, threats, warnings, etc.

(i) I advise you to keep up the payments on your car.
(j) I warn you not to step across this line.
(k) I promise you that I will pay the money back by the end of the month.
(l) I bet you a dollar that it'll rain on the parade.

In the last sentence, the utterance of the sentence actually accomplishes the act of betting (possibly along with setting aside the money for the bet), and as such, it belongs to the class of ceremonial utterances that accomplish other kinds of changes in the world:

(m) I now pronounce you husband and wife.
(n) I name this ship Sojourner.
(o) I dub thee Sir Galahad.

It is clear that not all uses of verbs that can be performative are actually performative in particular utterances. For example, if we change the person or the tense in any of the last seven sentences, they are no longer performative:

(i2) He advises you to keep up the payments on your car.
(n2) I named this ship Sojourner.

In both these cases, the utterance simply reports, and does not accomplish the act of advising or of naming.

The hereby test.

A test of whether or not a particular sentence is a performative utterance is whether or not you can insert hereby before the verb. If the resulting sentence doesn't make sense, it is not a performative:

(m3) I hereby name this ship Sojourner; but
(m4) *I hereby named this ship Sojourner.

Felicity Conditions

In order to "do things with words", certain things must be true of the context in which speech acts are uttered. In other words, a sentence must not only be grammatical to be correctly performed, it must also be felicitous. There are generally considered to be three types of felicity conditions:

Preparatory conditions, such as that the person performing the speech act has the authority to do so, that the participants are in the correct state to have that act performed on them, and so on -- the marriage performed by an utterance like (l) cannot happen unless the participants are of age, and not already married, and unless the person who says the words has the authority to marry people.

Conditions on the manner of execution of the speech act, such as touching the new knight on both shoulders with the flat blade of a sword while intoning the words in (n); and

Sincerity conditions, obviously necessary in the case of verbs like apologize and promise.

Some of the felicity conditions on questions and requests as speech acts can be described as follows, where "S" = speaker; "H" = hearer; "P" = some state of affairs; and "A" = some action.

A. S questions H about P.
1. S does not know the truth about P.
2. S wants to know the truth about P.
3. S believes that H may be able to supply the information about P that S wants.

B. S requests H to do A.
1. S believes A has not yet been done.
2. S believes that H is able to do A.
3. S believes that H is willing to do A-type things for S.
4. S wants A to be done.

We can see what happens when some of these conditions are absent. In classrooms, for example, one reason that children may resent teachers' questions is that they know that there is a violation of A.1: the teacher already knows the answer. A violation of B.2 can turn a request into a joke: "Would you please tell it to stop raining?"

Gricean Conversational Maxims

The work of H.P. Grice takes pragmatics farther than the study of speech acts. Grice's aim was to understand how "speaker's meaning" -- what someone uses an utterance to mean -- arises from "sentence meaning" -- the literal (form and) meaning of an utterance. Grice proposed that many aspects of "speaker's meaning" result from the assumption that the participants in a conversation are cooperating in an attempt to reach mutual goals -- or at least are pretending to do so!

He called this the Cooperative Principle. It has four sub-parts or maxims that cooperative conversationalists ought in principle to respect:

(1) The maxim of quality. Speakers' contributions ought to be true.

(2) The maxim of quantity. Speakers' contributions should be as informative as required; not saying either too little or too much.

(3) The maxim of relevance. Contributions should relate to the purposes of the exchange.

(4) The maxim of manner. Contributions should be perspicuous -- in particular, they should be orderly and brief, avoiding obscurity and ambiguity.

Grice was not acting as a prescriptivist when he enunciated these maxims, even though they may sound prescriptive. Rather, he was using observations of the difference between "what is said" and "what is meant" to show that people actually do follow these maxims in conversation. We can see how this works in considering the maxim of quantity at work in the following made-up exchange between parent and child:

Parent: Did you finish your homework?
Child: I finished my algebra.
Parent: Well, get busy and finish your English, too!

The child did not say that her English homework is not done, nor did she imply it in a legalistic sense. Nevertheless the parent is entitled to draw this conclusion, based on the combination of what the child actually said and the cooperative principle.

Very often, particular non-literal meanings are conveyed by appearing to "violate" or "flout" these maxims. If you were to hear someone described as having "one good leg", you would be justified in assuming the person's other leg was bad, even though nothing had been said about it at all.

Rhetorical coherence and the given/new distinction

In conveying a message, we have to consider more than just "who did what to whom." We also have to keep in mind what our listeners know, and how to lay the message out for them in an orderly and understandable way.

We have to be careful not to assume knowledge listeners don't have. If a stranger comes up to us on the street and says, out of nowhere, "what is the frequency?" we are likely to assume that he is crazy, or perhaps mistaking us for someone else. Young children make this sort of communicative mistake all the time, because their ability to model other people's knowledge and belief is not well developed.

Similarly, we have to be careful not to introduce familiar things as if they were new. Aside from being insulting, this can be confusing, since our listeners may try to find a new interpretation to match our implication of novelty. If your roommate says "there's a letter for you on the table", and it's the same old letter that both of you know well has been there for several days, you may waste some time looking for another one.

There are many aspects of language that help to indicate whether a particular piece of information is "old" or "new", and to manage the amount of detail that we use in talking about it, and to make it more or less salient for our listeners or readers. For example, "old information" (part of the earlier content of a discourse, for instance) is referred to using a pronoun, and occurs early in a sentence. What is "new" typically occurs as a noun, and occurs later in the sentence:

"When John appeared at the party, he was introduced to Pearl.
She had arrived with her friend Julie."

In this text fragment, John turns into 'he' when John is "known", and this pronoun occurs at the beginning of the clause that introduces Pearl as new. When Pearl becomes known, she also gets converted to the pronoun 'she' in the next sentence, occupying a slot at the beginning of the next sentence, which in turn introduces the new character, Julie, in the typical sentence-final position.

Here's a more realistic example, taken from a transcript of conversation about fashions that took place in 1991 (sw4746):

B.72 : [Sniffing] One thing I've noticed is come back here are clogs.
A.73 : Really?
B.74 : Yeah. They're starting to make a comeback.
You see them in the stores more and more and I said I didn't think I'd ever see those again. [laughter]

The new information "clogs" is put at the end of the phrase that introduces it, and then referred to with a pronoun at the start of the next full sentence that discusses it. Consider how odd it would be to do the opposite, switching the structures of the first and second of B's sentences::

B.72 : [Sniffing] Clogs're starting to make a comeback..
A.73: Really?
B.74: Yeah. One thing I've noticed is come back here are them.
You see them in the stores more and more and I said I didn't think I'd ever see those again. [laughter]

Something similar often happens with indefinite and definite noun phrases ("a man" or "some people" vs. "the man" or "those people"). Here's a real example from another transcribed conversation (sw4787) , this one about family reunions (overlapping speech is marking with #...#):

B.52: And well they elect officers every year and #they have a#
A.53: #You're kidding.# I have never heard of this. [laughter]
B.54: Yeah, they have a,- they have a- a president. Usually they try to elect a family and inside that family, there'll be the president and- or the chairman or whatever and then each person has an assignment to- to you know, carry out one part of the thing.

Here speaker B starts out by saying "they have a president", and then, in adding more information, switches to "the president". The same sort of switch from indefinite to definite occurs in saying "usually they try to elect a family and inside that family, there'll be..." As this switch occurs, nothing is changed about the nature of the concepts that the phrases are naming -- the only thing that changes is the listener's familiarity with them.

Another way to study how we organize and package information according to the communicative context is to look at the usage of different sentence forms with very similar meaning.

(o) I need a nickel.
(p) It's me that needs a nickel.
(q) What I need is a nickel.
(r) A nickel is what I need.

Now, imagine yourself standing next to a phone booth fishing for change. Someone trying to be helpful might say:

(s) What are you looking for?
(t) Here's a dime.

Which of (o)-(r) are appropriate responses to each of these?

Studying such potention question and answer pairs shows us that sentences can express the same semantic content and still have different pragmatic circumstances of appropriate usage. This is because language has many devices for indicating what is given and what is new, and questions (explicit or implicit) set up expectations that are respected in the answers.








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