In this Issue
Letters to the Editor
Write to Us
MED Web Watch
Pragmatics is the study of how people use language. It describes the connection between language and human life. An important feature of language is that the meaning of a sentence is more than a combination of the meaning of the words it contains: to understand fully, we also use information from the situation where the sentence is used. Look at the following example:
From this we understand that:
These two ideas do not come from the individual words Kate has spoken. They come from the particular combination of these words with our knowledge of the situation where they are used. Some words show many different pragmatic effects. Forget is one of these, and here we show several contrasting uses of forget. Language users (either speakers or writers) continually make choices of words and phrases and these choices affect how they are understood. Compare the following two ways of telling someone the same thing:
We understand Jim is telling Sue that they will not have enough money to go on holiday. We also understand that Jim is expressing some emotion about the idea. Either he really wants to go on holiday, or he knows that Sue does. The neutral way of saying the same thing is:
This example shows us an important choice: between a neutral way of saying something, and a way that emphasizes, or that expresses a personal point of view or an evaluation.
All languages have a set of pragmatic conventions about language use. These conventions are social and cultural. So they differ from language to language, from country to country, and from culture to culture. It is important to learn about the pragmatic conventions of English so as to be able to make full use of the words you know and to avoid mistakes.
The Macmillan English Dictionary gives a large amount of pragmatic information about how, when, and why words are used. All the examples are taken from real texts and conversations. It helps you to use words and phrases correctly.
People use language to do things. For example to:
Here are some examples from the dictionary:
This use of forget it is emotional and rather impolite. Compare it with the first meaning of forget it, which is polite, and is often used for refusing an offer from someone else:
People also use language to help their social relationships. For example, when you ask someone to do something for you, you usually want to do this politely. Many entries in the dictionary give information about how to use words politely. For example:
Both may and can are used for asking for, giving, and refusing permission, but may is more formal:
There is also information about impolite and rude language in the dictionary.
Politeness is often about taking care of emotions and feelings – your own and other people’s. There are many expressions that tell someone else that you are trying to take care of their feelings. Here is an example from the entry for the verb may:
To make a comment about someone else’s clothes, even a positive one, could be impolite, especially if you do not know the person well. If I may say so, in this context, means ‘I know I am saying something risky’.
Words and phrases can give information about people’s attitude and feelings, for example:
One large area of difficulty for learners is that English has many words and phrases that appear to be neutral, but that in fact carry a negative or positive connotation (this has been called ‘semantic prosody’). Here is an example:
However, it is important to know that par for the course very often shows a negative attitude. For example, in a newspaper report of a football match, the manager is disappointed with the size of the crowd:
Notice that the same word can have a positive or a negative meaning, depending on the situation in which it is used. Here is an example:
People learn some of their attitudes from their culture, so learners of English need to learn not only the basic meaning of words but also their cultural impact. An example of an attitude that varies from culture to culture is the outward expression of feelings. In some cultures, people express negative emotions such as grief in a very open and public way, while in other cultures people try hard not to show their feelings.
In English, if we say that someone bottles up their feelings, we mean that we think that this is bad. But if we say that someone hides their feelings, we make no evaluative comment. Here is an example that makes the negative connotation obvious:
Generally, in British culture, people do not express negative emotions such as grief or anger in public.
Vague expressions allow speakers and writers to give an appropriate amount of information in a particular context. For example, people are vague because they do not have precise information or, sometimes, they are vague because precise information is not needed. We show many vague expressions in the dictionary. Here are just two:
The writers here are generalizing and therefore cannot give exact amounts or times.
Ros wants to focus on the telephone call and what she was doing at the time is not important.
The classic linguistics text on pragmatics is:
An introductory book that contains tasks and exercises is:
For more on the topics described here, see: