Element Seven: Pragmatics

StandingInLineIn front of a movie theater, a guy named Joe is looking for the right place to get in line. He walks up to a man who happens to be a linguist. Joe says to the linguist, “Is this the end of the line?” And the linguist answers, “Well, it’s one end.”

Of course, the linguist should have just said, “Yes, it’s the end,” or “No, it’s the front. But the linguist was playing. He knew what Joe meant. A line actually has two ends, ”the front end“ and ”the back end.“ And the linguist was playing with those two meanings of ”end.” The linguist was playing with semantics (word meanings) and pragmatics (speaker meaning) because he playfully didn’t respond to what Joe meant.

(In what follows, the terms speaker meaning and pragmatics will basically mean the same thing.)

Understanding Pragmatic Meanings

What Joe meant is called the pragmatic meaning. That is, it’s the speaker meaning. With pragmatics, we focus on what Joe really wants to say, which can be different from the meaning of his words. For example, we often see a difference between pragmatic meaning and semantic meaning when people use irony.

It’s raining today?! That’s just great!”

Now maybe it hasn’t rained for 6 months, so the speaker is happy that it is finally raining. However, maybe the speaker is upset that it’s raining because he wants to have a picnic in the park. The rain is causing trouble, so the phrase “That’s just great!” is ironic. To emphasize a point, the speaker is saying the opposite of what he means.

The Cooperative Principle

We can understand speaker meaning more clearly when we look at how people cooperate when they communicate. In the above “end of the line” example, we see that the linguist playfully does not cooperate with Joe’s intended meaning. This highlights the value of cooperation for pragmatics.

Regarding cooperation, philosopher of language Paul Grice, introduced the idea of the Cooperative Principle. With the Cooperative Principle, we assume that we will cooperate to reach our conversational goals. Now this may sound like Grice is telling us how we should communicate. But actually, he is describing how we actually communicate. That is, the Cooperative Principle is descriptive, not necessarily prescriptive.

Four Conversational Maxims

Grice suggests that we can see the Cooperative Principle in four Conversational Maxims (or rules). (1) The Maxim of Quantity. We expect each other to give an appropriate amount of information. (2) The Maxim of Quality. We expect each other to give true information. (3) The Maxim of Relevance. We expect each other to give relevant information. (4) The Maxim of Manner. We expect each other to speak in a clear and orderly way.

We might use the Four Maxims as guides for speaking; however, they also simply describe the way we communicate all the time. For example, I was a student in Scotland, but I live in Japan. When returning to Scotland, I would bring snacks for other students and teachers and share them in the common room.

One day at lunch, a number of the British students were sampling my snacks. For fun, I would bring snacks that British people might find a bit new or challenging. I asked one student what he thought of a particular snack that he had never had before. His response was interesting. He said, “It’s not my favorite.”

Of course, he could have said, “I didn’t like it,” or “I hated it.” But instead he gave a response that partly broke Maxim Two. That is, he wasn’t exactly telling the truth. He was being nice by softening the truth. However, because I was cooperating with him, I realized that he was being softly ironic. And I understood his meaning that he didn’t really like the snack.

Breaking and Keeping the Maxims

With the Cooperative Principle and the Four Maxims, we can see conversation in a different light. Of course, we can break the Four Maxims on purpose. For example, people lie and mislead others with their words, breaking Maxim One. But there is a softer way we break these rules. We use irony, saying the opposite of what we mean (breaking Maxim One). Or we say things that seem to be irrelevant, (breaking Maxim Three). For example:

Alex: What’s for dinner?
Billy: Craig is sick.
Alex: I see. Let’s order pizza.

In this case, Alex reads between the lines. He cooperates with Billy. The semantic flow of the conversation does not make sense. But because Alex is cooperating, he cooperatively assumes that Billy is actually being relevant, and he also knows the context that perhaps Craig usually cooks dinner, but he can’t tonight because he’s sick, so it’s time to order food.

The Uncooperative Principle

In the above examples, we see cooperation. But sometimes communication breaks down, and people stop cooperating. I call this the Uncooperative Principle. That is,

We expect speakers to be uninformative, untruthful, irrelevant, unclear, ambiguous, long-winded, and disorderly.

When this happens, we are in trouble. We will misinterpret what people say. For example, imagine that Alex and Billy just had an argument, and they are mad at each other. Alex says, “What’s for dinner?” And Billy answers, “Craig is sick.” Then Alex yells back, “What is that supposed to mean?! Why are you talking about Craig being sick when I’m talking about dinner?!”

Pragmatics is about speaker meaning. To understand speakers, we need to cooperatively look at how context, body language, and tone of voice affect meaning. Though there are many, many things we can learn about the field of pragmatics, cooperation is key.