Pragmatics is the study of meaning in context. The contextual meaning we investigate here is quite distinct from the meaning in context that we discussed when talking about collocations or idioms in semantics. There, the kind of context we were interested in was more of a syntagmantic co-text, whereas now we are interested in the situational context, which includes information about:

A simple, often cited, example will illustrate the importance of contextual knowledge on the interpretation of a message. If a speaker utters the message It’s cold in here, then in most cases, this speaker will not simply be commenting on the temperature inside the particular room the speaker and hearer are in, but usually want to get the interlocutor to do something about this particular circumstance, be it the act of closing a door or window, should one be open, or maybe simply turning up the radiator.

Landmarks in ‘Traditional’ Pragmatics

The most important initial contributions to modern ‘traditional’ pragmatics were made by a group of philosophers referred to as “ordinary language philosophers”, namely John Austin, John Searle & (Herbert) Paul Grice. Their main ideas are briefly summarised below.


Austin (1962), How to Do Things With Words

In contrast to the longstanding notion in philosophy that utterances simply ‘state’ truth conditions, Austin was the first to point out that some verbal acts also ‘perform’ something, and that this ‘action’ is frequently achieved through so-called performative verbs, e.g.

He also claimed that certain conditions need to be fulfilled if a verbal action is to be deemed successful. These conditions are referred to as felicity conditions and encompass such criteria as e.g.

... in other words, most performative acts are highly conventionalised.


Think of some other performative verbs and which felicity conditions need to apply for them to be usable.


Searle (1969), Speech Acts

A speech act is an expression of illocutionary force, i.e. the ‘intention’ of the speaker in saying something. This is distinct from the locutionary properties of the utterance – i.e. simply what is said or the purely semantic, compositional meaning of the words – and the perlocutionary effect, i.e. the effect on and possibly also subsequent actions of the hearer. One and the same thing may be expressed in different ways through locutionary acts, and there exist a set of “illocutionary force indicating devices” (later simply referred to as IFIDs) that signal the force of the utterance, amongst them, word order, stress and intonation.

Similar to Austin’s stipulating his felicity conditions, Searle also assumes that a set of conditions is required in order to fulfil a speech act X:


  1. Identify the illocutionary force and possible IFIDS in the following utterances:
    • Let’s go home!
    • Shut up!
    • Are you crazy?
    • You must be joking.
    • What time is the train for Manchester leaving?
    • Would you like tea or coffee?
    • Wow!
  2. Think about whether you agree with all of Searle’s conditions listed above and justify your decision.


Grice (1967/75/89), ‘Logic and Conversation’

In ‘Logic and Conversation’, Grice introduced the concept of implicature, which refers to the added meaning (or implication) expressed by what is literally said by the speaker. An example of this would be the following brief exchange between two friends about a mutual acquaintance (based on and adapted from Grice 1989: 24):


Try to explain the potential implicatures in the above conversation. Also think about whether we can identify the exact meaning of these implicatures without having any additional background knowledge.

Another important idea that Grice established in the same book is that, essentially, the participants in a conversation behave co-operatively in constructing or identifying meaning. He called this the Cooperative Principle (CP), which embodies a set of categories, generally these days referred to as maxims, although Grice himself actually used this term to refer to the sub-parts of each category. These categories are summarised briefly below:

The CP has often been criticised a series of strict rules that are generally untenable, but what most of the critics seem to have overlooked is that they are simply some guidelines for best-case behaviour, as well as expressing certain expectations most interlocutors would bring into a verbal exchange. However, there are certainly accidental or deliberate cases where the CP is not adhered to in almost all conversations.


Grice cites the following example of a letter of reference where the CP is deliberately not adhered to: “Dear Sir, Mr. X’s command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular. [...]”. Try to identify which (of the) principle(s) of the CP is/are not respected and justify you choice.

Computer-/Corpus-Based Pragmatics

Computer/corpus-based pragmatics uses some of the traditional concepts expressed above, but also more and more tries to identify ways of identifying correspondences between meaning and form that go beyond simply identifying the semantics of utterances. Since handling unrestricted topics by computer is still far too difficult to achieve, it usually concentrates on analysing data from very specific and restricted domains. What has been referred to as speech acts in traditional pragmatics is often referred to as dialogue acts, at least in some approaches.

Perhaps the most common application of computational pragmatics is in dialogue systems, where human users verbally interact with a computer system in order to obtain information or to conduct transactions, such as booking flight or train tickets, etc. In order to identify and analyse this type of behaviour, in recent years various annotation schemes have been designed, amongst them DAMSL (Dialog Act Markup in Several Layers) and the SPAADIA (Speech Act Annotated Dialogues) Corpus scheme.

Sources & Further Reading:

Austin, J.L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Leech, G. & Weisser, M. (2002). Pragmatics and Dialogue. In Mitkov, R. (Ed.) 2003. The Oxford Handbook of Computational Linguistics. Oxford: OUP.

Leech, G. & Weisser, M. (2013). The SPAADIA Annotation Scheme.

Levinson, S. (1982). Pragmatics. Cambridge: CUP.

Searle, J. (1969). Speech Acts: an Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: CUP.

Weisser, M. (2012). Pragmatics in the analysis of discourse and interaction. In Chapelle, C.A. (Ed.). The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.