How to Speak Practically: Introduction to Pragmatics

Pragmatics, a broad term within philosophy, is often associated with John Dewey and the other pragmatists. However, pragmatics within linguistics has a different meaning, a meaning not to be conflated with pragmatic philosophy. Pragmatics within linguistics refers to language as used in the real world; in some sense, one could say that pragmatics is the usage-based approach to linguistics. For instance, in prescriptive rule-based linguistics, “wat you gunna’ do,” is far from proper; however, in pragmatic, the utterance is deemed coherent; only because a community of speakers use it.

In this article, we will cover a few foundational concepts for pragmatics. The topics for our discussion below will be deixis, speaker intention, and pre-supposition. Of course, that is far from an exhaustive list of the foundations to pragmatics but it will cover more than a few essential features which define the field. So, without further rambling, let us begin.


All speech occurs in a time, space, or event; that is, whenever we are speaking to one another, we do so relative to some instance of time, space, or event. So, we can infer then, from this simple truth, that our conversations occur with a wealth of background information. This may seem obvious, but its impact on our language usage might be less obvious.

In our everyday conversations, we use words that are named “deictic phrases”. These deictic words have the specific function of adopting as their referent a time, space, or event: we call these deictic elements. In addition to adopting a time, space, or event as a referent, deictic phrases can sometimes have people as their referents: I.e., “you”. Deictic elements contribute significantly to the meanings of words such as the following: “that,” “this,” and “then”. Take notice as well, all those words are polysemous because they can have multiple meanings; each word’s meaning depends on which deictic element they attach to. For example, “you boy, grab me a turkey,” has “you’ adopting as its referent the boy, presumably, whom the speaker pointed at. However, “you, fetch me my robe,” can have as its referent some other person. So, the meaning of “you” is polysemous. If polysemy is too jargony for you, I have an article that explains polysemy: “How Words Relate: lexical relationships”. In short, polysemy is a word that can have many meanings, like the word “over”.

Come over here

Put the lid over the pot

I’m going over the top

But, moreover, let us return to deixis. When we use the words like “then” to refer to an instance of time, there is an assumed understanding between two speakers. For example, when someone says, “see you then,” it is usually after there has been an agreement made between two speakers to meet at some later date or time. And so, the word “then” adopts the agreed upon time as its referent:

Jim: “want to meet at 2:45pm tomorrow?”

Sally: “sure, see you then”.

As we can see, the meaning for “then” comes from the previous utterance of “2:45pm tomorrow”. So, “then” adopts as its referent a future event. Let us consider another deictic phrase: namely, “that”.

The word “that” is similar to “then,” except “that” places less emphasis on time. When we use the word, “that,” it is to indicate or point to some object or event within a given context; for example, “Jane lives in [that] house over there”. Here, the use of “that” is meant to refer to a particular house within the view of the speaker and listener; and so, “that” adopts a referent within the immediate environment.

All deictic phrases operate in a similar fashion as the two mentioned above; for instance, “this,” is another common deictic phrase that adopts the immediate environment as a referent: “Jane lives in [this] city,” wherein “this” adopts the current city as its referent. There are, of course, more deictic phrases to be spoken about, but this has covered the basics. From this, you should have no problem understanding deixis.

Speaker Intention

We all think about the world around us. Some of us think about books and how joyous they are to read, some of us think about memes and how hilarious they are to see, and, dare I say, some of us think about morality and how essential it is for humanity. And sometimes this effortful process of thinking influences our use of language.

The top-down influence of thought on language is the essential idea behind speakers intention; that is, speaker intention refers to what a speaker had in mind when performing some utterance. To explain by contrast, consider the following: if a belief refers to what someone believes about the environment, then an intention is what someone thinks about that environment. I may believe Donald Trump is president while also thinking that he should be anything but. And so the role intentions play in speech production relates to intended meaning; more specifically, intentions allow us to have some form of intended meaning which cannot be derived from the speech content alone because intentions are thoughts about things.

Consider the phrase, “Thanks a lot!”. When said in the context of someone breaking another person’s possession, the phrase is meant to do precisely the opposite of what its literal meaning conveys; comparatively, if it were uttered in a situation wherein which a person had helped another individual, then the phrase would be used in its most literal sense.

Situation A: person X breaks person Z’s calculator

  • Person Z: “thanks a lot!”
  • Person X: “no problem”.

Situation B: Person X helps person Z solve equation

  • Person Z: “thanks a lot!”
  • Person X: “no problem”.

Again, take notice that in the first situation, the speaker’s have an intention to let one another know about their disliking for each other. On the other hand, in situation B, person Z is being genuine with person X, as person Z sincerely appreciated the assistance. This means that the literal sense of the utterance is being used. And so, the phrases become interpreted differently.

So, speaker intentions tell us that communication is far more than mere symbols; we could see with our above example that identical phrases can have multiple meanings depending on the intentions associated with each.


Pre-supposition is another important function that influences how we think about the meaning of a word or phrase. But we must note, presupposition is a tricky topic because the human brain presupposes more things than we could ever account for; take these examples: when I wake-up tomorrow, I will presuppose that my class will start as scheduled; when I walk outside tomorrow, I will presuppose that my house has chosen to remain in the same country overnight; and when I ask someone about the president of the united states, I will have presupposed that they know who said president is. These instances of presupposition demonstrate but a few of the many presuppositions we make daily.

So, to get the general sense of presupposition in linguistics, we will consider, as usual, a few sentences; the goal is to see the connection between the presupposition and the meaning.

Let us take a word like “all” and view it in two ways. In the first, we can think of this word as meaning the complete set of something. For example, “all the candy was eaten by Kim Jong-il”. Here, “all” tells us that, of the members in the set of things called “candy,” Kim Jong-il ate each member. However, this is riddled with presupposition. If we were to take the word “all” in the utmost literal sense, as we did above, we would be saying something false. There is still candy that exists. So the set of candy that we are referencing cannot be the sum-total set of candy; rather, “all” must relate to some implicitly defined set, which is the second way of using “all”.

Suppose person “A” goes to the store and buys a bag of candy for our friend Kim Jong-il. Upon doing so, the bag of candy becomes a set of candy for us to reference; hence the phrases, “can I have half that bag,” or, “can I have some of that candy,”. The reason that the bag becomes an implicit set is that it is the most salient set of candies for us; a similar phenomenon happens with anaphora. For instance, if we had purchased a puppy and wanted to tell people about the puppy, then we could use phrases like, “you have to see the puppy I got”. In that example, the purchased puppy is referenced as “the puppy,” because it is the most obvious puppy. But moreover, it is also important to note that the bag of candy we purchased for Kim Jong-il is a container which holds a set of objects. Thus, we can now see how the phrase, “Kim Jong-il ate all the candy,” can be meaningful. We presupposed that the set, for which “all” references, is the finite amount of candy contained within the bag.

Consider another word that has a literal sense and which operates under an assumption: namely, “everything”. In the literal sense, this word means all things, and so it is a synonym for “all”. However, where ‘all” refers to a set of things, “everything” refers to every thing within and outside of a given set; that is, if “all” picks out the total amount of members in a specific set of candy, then “everything” would not only pick out every member in that set of candy but also every member of every other known set. But as we already know, that is impossible due to the limitations of human attention; not a single one of us could ever have as our referent “every-thing” by biological limitation alone.

So, if “everything” does not refer to every thing, then whatever do we mean by its utterance? Well, as is the case with “all,” we have presuppositions at play here.

Suppose a person had 10 different objects, all of which were different types, in the back of their car. Now let us say two of these objects are chairs. In doing so, we could then say, “bring in all the chairs,” and it would be perfectly sensible. We already established that this would reference the set of chairs within the back of the car. However, when we say, bring in everything, by the same token, it would reference all the things in the back of the car, irrespective of the sets which each thing belongs to. And so, we still use “everything” in a literal sense, but it is necessarily accompanied by implicitly defined amounts.

Thus, from here, we can see that pre-supposition plays a massive role in the usage of language; indeed, even the most literal utterances and words operate on implicit assumptions. Without presupposition, many of us would be similar to a computer that cannot process natural language in an intelligent fashion.


One of the primary conclusions drawn from pragmatics is that word meaning is more than a linguistic event. That is, there are times where word meaning may deviate from the linguistic conception and rely upon extra-linguistic variables to be meaningful. Or, there may be times where a word might have both a linguistic and non-linguistic meaning; and so, the context or usage of the utterance will play a deciding factor as to what the intended meaning is.

Therefore, investigations of word meaning ought to be extended to the brain and how it interacts with the environment; only because there are mental events that need be sufficiently analyzed if we are to fully comprehend extra-linguistic meaning. Thus, the study of language is necessarily the study of language speakers and their surroundings, according to pragmatics.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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