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"Pragmatics" was defined by Charles W. Morris (1938) as the branch of semiotics that studies the relation of signs to interpreters, in contrast with semantics, which studies the relation of signs to designata. In practice, it has often been treated as a repository for any aspect of utterance meaning beyond the scope of existing semantic machinery, as in the slogan "Pragmatics = meaning minus truth conditions" (Gazdar 1979). There has been some doubt about whether it is a homogeneous domain (Searle, Kiefer, and Bierwisch 1980).

A more positive view emerges from the work of Herbert Paul Grice, whose William James Lectures (1967) are fundamental. Grice showed that many aspects of utterance meaning traditionally regarded as conventional, or semantic, could be more explanatorily treated as conversational, or pragmatic. For Gricean pragmatists, the crucial feature of pragmatic interpretation is its inferential nature: the hearer is seen as constructing and evaluating a hypothesis about the communicator's intentions, based, on the one hand, on the meaning of the sentence uttered, and on the other, on contextual information and general communicative principles that speakers are normally expected to observe. (For definition and surveys see Levinson 1983.)

The Semantics-Pragmatics Distinction

In early work, the semantics-pragmatics distinction was often seen as coextensive with the distinction between truth-conditional and non-truth-conditional meaning (Gazdar 1979). On this approach, pragmatics would deal with a range of disparate phenomena, including (a) Gricean conversational inference, (b) the inferential recognition of illocutionary-force, and (c) the conventional meanings of illocutionary-force indicators and other non-truth-conditional expressions such as but, please, unfortunately (Recanati 1987). From the cognitive point of view, these phenomena have little in common.

Within the cognitive science literature in particular, the semantics-pragmatics distinction is now more generally seen as coextensive with the distinction between decoding and inference (or conventional and conversational meaning). On this approach, all conventional meaning, both truth-conditional and non-truth-conditional, is left to linguistic semantics, and the aim of pragmatic theory is to explain how the gap between sentence meaning and utterance interpretation is inferentially bridged. A pragmatic theory of this type is developed in D. Sperber and D. Wilson (1986).


Grice's distinction between saying and implicating crosscuts the semantics-pragmatics distinction as defined above. For Grice, "what is said" corresponds to the truth-conditional content of an utterance, and "what is implicated" is everything communicated that is not part of what is said. Grice saw the truth-conditional content of an utterance as determined partly by the conventional (semantic) meaning of the sentence uttered, and partly by contextual (pragmatic) factors governing disambiguation and reference assignment. He saw conventional (semantic) implicatures as determined by the meaning of discourse connectives such as but, moreover and so, and analyzed them as signaling the performance of higher-order speech acts such as contrasting, adding and explaining (Grice 1989). An alternative analysis is developed in D. Blakemore (1987).

Among nonconventional (pragmatic) implicatures, the best known are the conversational ones: These are beliefs that have to be attributed to the speaker in order to preserve the assumption that she was obeying the "cooperative principle" (with associated maxims of truthfulness, informativeness, relevance, and clarity), in saying what she said. In Grice's framework, generalized conversational implicatures are "normally" carried by use of a certain expression, and are easily confused with conventional lexical meaning (Grice 1989). In Grice's view, many earlier philosophical analyses were guilty of such confusion.

Grice's account of conversational implicatures has been questioned on several grounds:

  1. The status and content of the cooperative principle and maxims have been debated, and attempts to reduce the maxims or provide alternative sources for implicatures have been undertaken (Davis 1991, Horn 1984, Levinson 1987, Sperber and Wilson 1986).
  2. Grice claimed that deliberate, blatant maxim-violation could result in implicatures, in the case of metaphor and irony in particular. This claim has been challenged, and alternative accounts of metaphor and irony developed, in which no maxim-violation takes place (Blakemore 1992, Hugly and Sayward 1979, Sperber and Wilson 1986).
  3. Pragmatic principles have been found to make a substantial contribution to explicit communication, not only in disambiguation and reference assignment, but in enriching the linguistically encoded meaning in various ways. This raises the question of where the borderline between explicit and implicit communication should be drawn (Sperber and Wilson 1986, 1995). It has even been argued that many of Grice's best-known cases of generalized conversational implicature might be better analyzed as pragmatically determined aspects of what is said (Carston 1988, Recanati 1989).
  4. The idea that the context for utterance interpretation is determined in advance of the utterance has been questioned, and the identification of an appropriate set of contextual assumptions is now seen as an integral part of the utterance-interpretation process (Blakemore 1992, Sperber and Wilson 1986).


Within the cognitive science literature, several approaches to pragmatics are currently being pursued. There are computational attempts to implement the Gricean program via rules for the recognition of coherence relations among discourse segments (Asher and Lascarides 1995, Hobbs 1985). Relations between the Gricean program and speech-act theory are being reassessed (Tsohatzidis 1994). The cognitive foundations of pragmatics and the relations of pragmatics to neighboring disciplines are still being explored (Sperber and Wilson 1995, Sperber 1994). Despite this diversity of approaches, pragmatics now seems to be established as a relatively homogenous domain.

See also Cognitive Science; Grice, Herbert Paul; Metaphor; Philosophy of Language; Reference; Semantics.


Asher, N., and A. Lascarides. "Lexical Disambiguation in a Discourse Context." Journal of Semantics 12 (1995): 69108.

Blakemore, D. Semantic Constraints on Relevance. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Blakemore, D. Understanding Utterances. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

Carston, R. "Explicature, Implicature and Truth-Theoretic Semantics." In Mental Representations: The Interface between Language and Reality, edited by R. Kempson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Davis, S., ed. Pragmatics: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Gazdar, G. Pragmatics: Implicature, Presupposition and Logical Form. New York: Academic Press, 1979.

Grice, H. P. "Logic and Conversation." William James Lectures. Cambridge, MA, 1967.

Grice, H. P. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Hobbs, J. "On the Coherence and Structure of Discourse." Center for the Study of Language and Information (October 1985).

Horn, L. "A New Taxonomy for Pragmatic Inference: Q-Based and R-Based Implicature." In Meaning, Form and Use in Context, edited by D. Schiffrin. Washington, DC, 1984.

Hugly, P., and C. Sayward. "A Problem about Conversational Implicature." Linguistics and Philosophy 3 (1979): 1925.

Levinson, S. "Minimization and Conversational Inference." In The Pragmatic Perspective, edited by J. Verschueren and M. Bertuccelli-Papis. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1987.

Levinson, S. Pragmatics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Morris, C. "Foundations of the Theory of Signs." In International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, edited by O. Neurath, R. Carnap, and C. Morriss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.

Recanati, F. Meaning and Force. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Recanati, F. "The Pragmatics of What Is Said." Mind and Language 4 (1989): 295329.

Searle, J., F. Kiefer, and M. Bierwisch, eds. Speech-Act Theory and Pragmatics. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1980.

Sperber, D. "Understanding Verbal Understanding." In What Is Intelligence?, edited by J. Khalfa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Sperber, D., and D. Wilson. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford, 1986.

Sperber, D., and D. Wilson. "Postface" to the second edition of Relevance. Oxford, 1995.

Tsohatzidis, S., ed. Foundations of Speech-Act Theory: Philosophical and Linguistic Perspectives. London: Routledge, 1994.

Deirdre Wilson (1996)

Speech Act Theory

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Speech Act Theory


Although the reflection on the performative dimension of language can arguably be traced back to the Sophists (Corax of Syracuse, Tisias, Gorgias, Protagoras, and Isocrates) of the fifth century BCE and their (lost) treatises on rhetoric and argumentation, it is John L. Austin (19111960) who usually is credited with being the first philosopher to systematically address this question. In his postmortem book titled How to Do Things with Words (1975), Austin showed that language can be used not only to describe states of affairs (as in This kitchen is very clean ), but also to do things (in this case, to note that this kitchen is very clean). More specifically, Austin named the type of action a person performs in saying something an illocutionary act. For instance, in saying Come here! in specific contexts, I can be said to be giving my interlocutor an order, which is an illocutionary act. This act can also have consequences, such as my making my interlocutor come when I say Come here! Austin named this type of action a perlocutionary act, which is an act that comprises the intentional or nonintentional consequences that result from the illocutionary act.

Although Austin provided a detailed classification of speech acts, it is John R. Searle who developed the most thorough systematization of this theory of language (Searle 1969, 1979; Searle and Vanderveken 1985; Vanderveken 19901991). Searle identified five different types of illocutionary acts, which he called assertives (i.e., holding something to be true, as in This kitchen is very clean ), commissives (i.e., committing oneself, as in Ill be there ), directives (i.e., getting someone to do something, as in Come here! ), expressives (i.e., expressing a psychological state vis-à-vis something that was done previously, as in Sorry for stepping on your toes ), and declarations (i.e., transforming the world by making it conform to the propositional content, as in I hereby declare that the session is open ). Searle also identified what he called indirect speech acts, which correspond to the speech acts by which one says more than what is literally said. For instance, when I say Would you mind bringing me this chair? I am literally asking my interlocutor if she is willing to bring me a chair. Searle calls this type of literal speech act a secondary illocutionary act by which a primary illocutionary act (or indirect speech act) is performed. In this case, the indirect speech act consists of (politely) asking my interlocutor to bring me a chair.

Several critiques have, of course, been addressed to this theory. For instance, Stephen C. Levinson (1981, 1983), Marina Sbisà (1984, 1987, 2002), and Emanuel A. Schegloff (1988) deplore that the orthodox speech act theory fails to capture the complexity and sequential character of human interaction, which, at first sight, renders its use relatively sterile to people interested in the detailed study of interaction (but see Cooren 2000, 2005; Geis 1995; Jacobs 1989; Sanders 1987; van Rees 1992). Another critique, coming from Jacques Derrida (1988), consists of highlighting the iterable character of speech acts, that is, their capacity of being repeated (or iterated) in a potentially infinite number of contexts. According to Derrida, this iterability undermines the identification made by Searle between what a speaker/writer means and the type of speech acts he or she produces (a monologism also denounced by Sbisà). According to this perspective, what the producer of a given speech act means is something that is conventionally reconstructed a posteriori by the participants and not something that defines a priori what a given speech act will count as. This reflection paves the way for a model of speech acts that would take into account the speech agency of things as diverse as documents, as in This announcement invites a bid for the construction of their building, where we attribute to a text the action of inviting; or spoken words, as in His words blessed their union, where the focus is on the agency of pronounced words (Cooren 2004).

SEE ALSO Communication; Psycholinguistics


Austin, John L. 1975. How to Do Things with Words. 2nd ed. Eds. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Orig. pub. 1962).

Cooren, François. 2000. The Organizing Property of Communication. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Cooren, François. 2004. Textual Agency: How Texts Do Things in Organizational Settings. Organization 11 (3): 373393.

Cooren, François. 2005. The Contribution of Speech Act Theory to the Analysis of Conversation: How Pre-sequences Work. In Handbook of Language and Social Interaction, eds. Kristine L. Fitch and Robert E. Sanders, 2140. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Derrida, Jacques. 1988. Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Geis, Michael L. 1995. Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Jacobs, Scott. 1989. Speech Acts and Arguments. Argumentation 3 (4): 345365.

Levinson, Stephen C. 1981. The Essential Inadequacies of Speech Act Models of Dialogue. In Possibilities and Limitations of Pragmatics: Proceedings of the Conference on Pragmatics, Urbino, July 814, 1979, eds. Herman Parret, Marina Sbisà, and Jef Verschueren, 473492. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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

Sanders, Robert E. 1987. Cognitive Foundations of Calculated Speech: Controlling Understandings in Conversation and Persuasion. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sbisà, Marina. 1984. On Illocutionary Types. Journal of Pragmatics 8 (1): 93112.

Sbisà, Marina. 1987. Speech Acts and Context Change. In Process Linguistics, eds. Thomas T. Ballmer and Wolfgang Wildgen, 252279. Tübingen, West Germany: Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Sbisà, Marina. 2002. Speech Acts in Context. Language and Communication 22 (4): 421436.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1988. Presequences and Indirection: Applying Speech Act Theory to Ordinary Conversation. Journal of Pragmatics 12 (1): 5562.

Searle, John R. 1969. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. London: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, John R. 1979. Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, John R., and Daniel Vanderveken. 1985. Foundations of Illocutionary Logic. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Vanderveken, Daniel. 19901991. Meaning and Speech Acts. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

van Rees, M. Agnès. 1992. The Adequacy of Speech Act Theory for Explaining Conversational Phenomena: A Response to Some Conversation Analytical Critics. Journal of Pragmatics 17 (1): 3147.

François Cooren


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PRAGMATICS. A branch of LINGUISTICS which originally examined the problem of how listeners uncover speakers' intentions. It is sometimes defined as the study of ‘speaker meaning’, as opposed to linguistic meaning: the utterance I'm thirsty might need to be interpreted as Go and buy me a drink and should not necessarily be taken at face value as a simple statement. The term is usually attributed to the British philosopher Charles Morris (1938–71), who distinguished between SYNTAX (the relations of sings to one another), SEMANTICS (the relations of signs to objects), and pragmatics (the relations of signs to interpretations). Recently, pragmatics has expanded into a wide and somewhat vague topic which includes anything relating to the way in which people communicate that cannot be captured by conventional linguistic analysis. Within pragmatics, discourse analysis (the study of language in discourse) has become a major focus of attention.


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prag·mat·ics / pragˈmatiks/ • pl. n. [usu. treated as sing.] the branch of linguistics dealing with language in use and the contexts in which it is used, including such matters as deixis, taking turns in conversation, text organization, presupposition, and implicature.

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