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.

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