TIM GILLAN ponders where to draw the line between ‘semantics’ and ‘pragmatics’

There is an extremely interesting debate about where the differences lie between semantics and pragmatics. It is something linguists are still attempting to define, although they do agree that the difference starts in the way that semantics is concerned with sentences (a group of words), and pragmatics is with utterances (a spoken or written communication). The difference between the two, according to Griffiths, is that ‘sentences are abstract’ and ‘utterances are identified by their contexts’ (2006: 6).

So what does that mean? Well, with semantics the focus is purely on the words themselves and how they make up a sentence, looking at the denotative meaning (this is essentially the dictionary definition of a word). On the other hand, pragmatics really looks at the context of an utterance, and therefore considers both the speaker/writer of the utterance and the person(s) receiving it. There are different factors that make up the studies of semantics and pragmatics, and these are more straightforward for pragmatics, which has four main topics within it, compared to semantics, which consists of several. These topics can cross over and this is where the idea of a ‘borderline’ between the two has arisen. This borderline is said to suggest a picture of semantics and pragmatics as neighbouring countries (Chapman 2011: 20), and that there is ‘dispute’ over the boundary.

Consider the following utterances:

A: ‘That’s a nice dog, you pick up a lot of girls with him?’
B: ‘No, he can only lift a few pounds.’

This is a great example of semantics and pragmatics in use. In this example person A is asking if B picks up girls with his dog, which is used in informal situations to mean ‘flirt with’ or ‘get a date with’. However person B’s answer suggests that they took the phrase ‘pick up’ by its more literal and common meaning, to lift something, hence his answer being related to how much the dog can lift. In this the phrase ‘pick up’ is polysemic, meaning it has more than one meaning, and polysemy is primarily a topic within semantics, however pragmatics most certainly comes into it.

Context is very important here, and considering the situations of the two people in the conversation is vital, such as, why did person B interpret pick up as lifting up and not as ‘getting a girl’? This could be for a number of reasons, e.g. they may not have heard the phrase ‘pick up’ used in any context other than to lift something up. This example creates a blur over what here is semantics-concerned and what is pragmatics-concerned.

All sorts of utterances put a big question mark over what and where this boundary is, and it is often suggested that it depends on one’s own interpretations. A major importance when considering what pragmatics is, is remembering that it concerns the ‘use of language’ (Huang 2007: 2), and as language users vary significantly in their language use, the ‘borderline’ is not perfectly clear.

TIM GILLAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Chapman, S. (2011). Pragmatics. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, Hampshire.
Griffiths, P. (2006). An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics
Huang, Y. (2007). Pragmatics. Oxford University Press Inc.: New York.


One thought on “TIM GILLAN ponders where to draw the line between ‘semantics’ and ‘pragmatics’

  1. Versha Patel says:

    As stated, pragmatics is concerned with the context of an utterance, whereas semantics involves the denotative meaning of a sentence. Both approaches demonstrated here address the idea that there are instances where factors of these overlap. So, although pragmatics involves the implied meaning and semantics considers the literal meaning it can be difficult to clarify where the ‘borderline’ between both lies.

    The polysemic use of ‘pick up’ reinforces that context is important. It is clear that in this instance, Speaker B has taken this phrase literally thus misinterpreting the implied meaning by Speaker A. Personally, I agree that the context of an utterance is vital because without this the implied meaning can differ vastly.

    The example used here makes a valid point that individual uses of language can influence the meaning of a given utterance. It is important to recognise that people vary their language uses and that both pragmatics and semantics contribute to our understanding of language. Taking into account that semantic and pragmatic concerns can be difficult to decode, I agree that the ‘borderline’ between both is fundamentally unclear.

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