REBECCA HESKETH explores the differences between semantics and pragmatics

It is often hard to make the distinction between the topics of semantics and pragmatics. Semantics is the study of the meaning of linguistic expressions. Crystal (2001: 102) explains that ‘the focus of the modern subject [of semantics] is on the way people relate words to each other within the framework of their language’. Pragmatics is ‘The systematic study of meaning by virtue of, or dependent on, the use of language’ (Huang 2007:2). Both have a fairly philosophical background. It is not only linguists who are interested in the difference between what we say and what we mean.

Even though the two are intertwined we need and use both everyday in our own speech and in the way we interpret what other speakers say.

Pragmatics enables us to decode what people say, in other words it helps us understand what people are implying when they do not say exactly what they mean. Also when we hear a sentence we subconsciously dissect it and take in each part of what we are being told.

Linguists who study semantics look for general rules that bring out the relationship between form, which is the observed arrangement of words in sentences and meaning. A semantic rule for English might say that a simple sentence involving the word ‘can’t’ always corresponds to a meaning arrangement like Not [ Able … ],but never to one like Able [ Not … ]. A way to understand this using a sentence would be the example, ‘I can’t dance’ means that I’m unable to dance; it doesn’t mean that I’m able not to dance.

The following examples will try to explain the different ways semanticist and pragmatists would approach a sentence.

rebecca hesketh pic

Figure 1.

The above example reads, ‘You rock!’, ‘You rule!’.
A semanticist would interpret the sentence literally as the objects identifying the jobs that they perform. However there is another, further meaning which the pragmatists would see and interpret as the objects complimenting each other as ‘rocking’ and ‘ruling’ are ways to express admiration.

The utterance, ‘It’s hot in here’, would be interpreted by a semanticist as someone literally commenting on the temperature of the location. A pragmatist would hear the utterance and look for a further meaning. The further meaning might be that the person who uttered the sentence would like the window to be opened but they did not come right out and say this it was their implicature.

A further way to define semantics and pragmatics would be to say that semantics deals with the question of meaning, while pragmatics deals with questions of use. A typical semantic question is: ‘is an utterance true’? A typical pragmatic question is: ‘is the utterance appropriate in a given situation’?

Whichever way we choose to divide up semantics and pragmatics it is clear that they are essential everyday tools and without them understanding language would be a much harder task!


REBECCA HESKETH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


2 thoughts on “REBECCA HESKETH explores the differences between semantics and pragmatics

  1. Ellis Tuddenham says:

    Semantics and pragmatics are confusing entities to grasp; however their roles in language use are vital for understanding utterances. As mentioned in the blog, pragmatics can assist with underlying meaning that is not explicitly stated. Therefore, pragmatics is considered with the politeness and implicature. It is important to note that semantics is more interested in the literal meaning being stated.

    Figure 1 in the blog is a good visual example, which demonstrates the different approaches that a semanticist and pragmatist would use in order to decipher the utterances. I personally find myself on the side of pragmatics, in that when I hear an utterance, I immediately question the underlying meaning that is being implied.

    Therefore, although semantics is useful in the understanding of language, pragmatics allows for implied meaning. Semantics does not consider context and the speaker-hearer relationship, whereas pragmatics allows for the formality of the conversation to influence meaning.

  2. Stumbled over this old article … isn’t this old joke a prime example:
    “Can you tell me the time?”
    Semanticist: “yes”
    Pragmatist: “it is 3pm”

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