Home > 8. The Dragons of Grammar > Pragmatics: the Fuzzy Dragon

Pragmatics: the Fuzzy Dragon

Poets thrive on ambiguity; without it, there would be no simile, no metaphor, no pleasure of discovering hidden connections. But for the rest of the species, fuzziness can be a headache.

Consider a sentence as straightforward as “I love you.” Depending on the situation, tone of voice, and accompanying body gestures, it could mean everything from abiding affection and companionship to the end of a relationship!

Pragmatics is the study of holistic communication, and can help disambiguate people’s messages.

Other ways to think of pragmatics include 1) The study of the speaker’s meaning, not focusing on the phonetic or grammatical form of an utterance, but instead on what the speaker’s intentions and beliefs are; 2) The study of the meaning in context, and the influence that a given context can have on the message. It requires knowledge of the speaker’s identities, and the place and time of the utterance; and 3) The study of implicatures, i.e. the things that are communicated even though they are not explicitly expressed.

Hmmm. If you’re beginning to think that Pragmatics is a broad field (and difficult to pin down exactly), consider this–it has its own category in Wikipedia. In this category, we find such items as abstraction (the tendency of a word for an specific kind of thing to eventually represent a broader concept–i.e., “through” comes from a Gothic word meaning “gate); aizuchi (the frequent interjections during conversation that indicate the listener is following the speaker); gradience (the degree to which a speaker claims that his or her statement is true); an illucutionary act (in which a speech act of one kind–such as question–can stand for another kind of speech act–such as “Can you pass the salt?” meaning “Please pass the salt.”); and politeness maxims (which describe the ways that we make our conversation more polite or sympathetic).

WoW! I’m beginning to feel a little fuzzy. I think that what this all boils down to is that pragmatics is the subtlest of the dragons of grammar. Here we are concerned with getting behind the mask of ordinary speech to a speaker’s real meaning and attitude. Reflection and a knack for fine distinctions can be required.

The abstractions of grammar do exist in the real world.

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Image: 18th century Korean ink and color painting. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

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