Doing Things with Language

When you speak or write, you are doing so much more than you think you are. ELs must interpret not only the words and syntax, but also the intended meaning. It’s no wonder they often feel lost when they listen to native English speakers!


What is it?

Pragmatics is the study of how language is used by real people in real life in both spoken and written forms. It is highly influenced by social and cultural context. Semantics, that we talked about last week, is more focused on what words, phrases, and sentences mean. Pragmatics considers what the speakers or writers meant by what they said or wrote. We all know that someone can say one thing but mean something completely different!

Rules for Conversation: Maxims

In speech, or in writing, we unknowingly follow what is referred to as the cooperative principle, summarized in the maxims below, as described by H.P. Grice.

Each participant’s contribution to the conversation…

  • Maxim of Quantity – should only be as informative as it needs to be. 
  • Maxim of Quality – should be truthful and based upon evidence. 
  • Maxim of Relation – should relate to what is being discussed. 
  • Maxim of Manner – should be as clear as possible, avoiding ambiguity and excessive wording. 

Can you think of a recent conversation when someone did not follow one of these principles? They may have done so on purpose! More about that in a bit.

Referring in Conversations: Anaphoric Expressions

In order to reduce some level of redundancy, we use anaphoric expressions in our speech and writing. I might say to you, “Joli was our white Bichon Frise. He was full of personality and loved to have fun. He loved going on car rides. I miss him so much!” 

The first time I mention our dog, I provide his name. This way you know who or what I’m talking about. This first reference is known as the antecedent. Later, I only say, “he”. This is the act of anaphora or referring back in speech or text. 

Speaking and writing would be very cumbersome if we didn’t have anaphora. I would need to say, “Joli was our white Bichon Frise. Joli was full of personality and loved to have fun. Joli loved going on car rides. I miss Joli so much!”

We need some redundancy in order to understand clearly, but this is too much!

Doing with Language: Speech Acts

At the heart of pragmatics is the fact that we do things with language. We don’t just talk or write, but we explain, complain, promise, request, question, etc. 

Each of our statements has three parts. The locutionary act is the actual uttering of the statement. The illocutionary act is what we are intending to do with the utterance, and the perlocutionary act is the effect it has on the hearer.

Consider this…

You’re on a long car trip with your best friend who is driving.

You say, “Boy, I sure am hungry!” (locutionary act)

Your intent: I am requesting that we stop very soon to get something to eat. (illocutionary act)

Your friend says, “Want to stop at the next exit? I think there’s a Panera there.” (perlocutionary act

So, without explicitly requesting that your friend stop the car at a restaurant, you were able to make your intent known and get your friend to act. It’s pragmatics, and it happens every day!

Why does it matter in my classroom?

Flouting Maxims

In general, people follow the cooperative principle and its rules of conversation. They are typically easy enough for ELs to acquire or learn. However, sometimes people “flout the maxim”, and ELs may be very confused!

For example, one of my favorite classic sitcoms is “I Love Lucy”. In one episode, the following conversation occurs. 

Ricky is agitated and thinks Fred has mishandled some of his band’s income while on tour in Europe. 

He yells at Fred, “I might as well have had Lucy be the money manager!”

Fred replies, “Well! There’s no need to get nasty!”

If you don’t know “I Love Lucy,” then the meaning of this utterance is completely lost on you. Ricky’s statement about his wife and Fred’s reply seem to be totally unrelated to the situation and to each other. Pragmatics is at work!

Ricky was implying something that was not part of what he said, and it did not directly relate to the conversation. He purposefully flouted (broke) the Maxim of Relation. Fred knows Lucy, and he knows that she is TERRIBLE with managing money, so he understands Ricky’s implication and is obviously insulted!

Here’s another example of flouting:

A colleague approaches you after you have graded a test and asks, “How did Bobby do?” You respond, “Well, he wrote something down for every question.”

You have flouted the Maxim of Quantity because you didn’t say enough to answer the colleague’s question. The implication that your colleague will take from this is that Bobby did not do well on the test.

These types of conversational exchanges are very common. Try listening for them today and see how many you hear! The problem for ELs is that they often do not understand enough of the context to comprehend the implication. As a result, they either come to an incorrect conclusion, or they are totally confused. In either case, communication did not occur!

Misunderstanding References

Although anaphora is very useful, it can cause so much confusion for ELs and native speakers alike. Following is a conversation I had with my sister-in-law via text.

Sister-in-law: Your dad did something today that he hasn’t done since the early 1980s.

Me: What was that?

Sister-in-law: He took the girls to a movie because I had a meeting at school. All movies are $5 on Tuesdays.

Me: What did they see?

Sister-in-law: Despicable Me 3. He said it was loud and they moved around a lot!

Me: The girls? 
(I can’t figure out who was loud and moving around. Who does THEY in her statement refer to? My nieces were young, but not preschoolers that might have been fidgeting during the movie.)

Sister-in-law: No, your dad. 
(Now, I’m really confused! I know my dad was not moving around a lot. She doesn’t understand my confusion and instead repeats who made the statement, not who was moving.)

Me: Who moved around a lot? 
(I tried to understand by asking a more specific question.)

Sister-in-law: Minions…on the movie.

Me: Oh, I see ☺ 
(That makes more sense! The THEY in her original statement was referring back to the movie, and its characters, not “the girls”.)

Sister-in-law: Your dad said the movie was loud and the minions moved around a lot! Lol (Even though I indicated that I now understood, she went on to fully clarify her reference.)

So, even if your ELs understand the meaning of every word in a conversation, they may still miss the intended meaning!

Employing Speech Acts

In order to perform one of the speech acts mentioned above, we have to know the correct vocabulary and syntax for requesting, promising, or complaining. However, we also have to know how to structure our utterance so the listener understands what we mean. 

For example, speakers must know the polite way to complain to a supervisor or instructor or how to request information from a business or a friend. We acquire much of this information when we acquire our first language. Some is explicitly taught by teachers or parents, but we know how to do a lot of it just by absorbing the culture around us. 

The same cannot always be said about ELs. Part of the problem is that they need to know how to do all of this NOW! They often do not have time to wait for the acquisition process to occur. Additionally, because pragmatics is so context-based, that means culture is heavily involved. What are considered polite speech acts in one culture might be very rude in another.

Three Suggestions for Implementation

Here are two resources for teaching ideas related to pragmatics and one link to a website with videos about all aspects of linguistics, including pragmatics. Check them how to see how they could be applied in your context.

American English: Teaching Pragmatics

This website is from the U.S. Department of State and is focused primarily on teaching pragmatics in a foreign language situation with older learners. Many of the ideas could be easily adapted, though.

Twelve Activities for Teaching the Pragmatics of Complaining to L2 Learners

This article centers on the speech act of complaining, but I think its ideas could be used to create lessons for teaching all of the other speech acts, too.

The Ling Space

I love this website! There are over 90 episodes dealing with all areas of linguistics. I’ll warn you that the author understands linguistics quite deeply, so some of the material is pretty dense. However, the information is fascinating, even if you only catch the gist! Here’s a link to the episodes specifically about semantics & pragmatics.

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