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Pragmatics is the study of how context affects meaning. There are two types of context: physical context (such as where a sign is located) and linguistic context (such as preceding sentences in a passage).


Deixis means 'pointing'. Sometimes, in discourse, you may 'point' to a person, time or place. Context is always necessary to understand deixis. Consider this example:

He saw a dog here last night.

There are three types of deictic expressions in this sentence:

  • Person deixis: He is refers to a person, understood by the listener in context.
  • Temporal deixis: Here refers to a place, understood by the listener in context.
  • Spatial deixis: Last night refers to the night before the utterance of the sentence, which also depends on context.


Reference means, as we have seen in the last chapter, to refer to something in the real world. The problem is that, constant reference aside, context is usually needed to determine the reference, and this is where pragmatics comes in. There are several topics involved in reference:

  • Inference: Sometimes, inference is needed to identify what a speaker is referring to. For example, when we hear I played some Chopin on the piano, we can infer that 'some Chopin' refers to piano works by Frederic Chopin.
  • Anaphora: It occurs when we refer back to something previously mentioned. Take the following example: I saw a strange guy last night. He was wearing a T-shirt with the Wikibooks logo. I tried waving, but the guy didn't respond. The anaphoric expressions he and the guy (with a definite article) both refer back to a strange guy, which is the antecedent.


Sometimes, there are hidden assumptions when we talk. A famous example is a referendum in New Zealand which asked its citizens, ' Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand? ' In this question, no matter whether the answer is Yes or No, there is a common assumption: A smack is a part of good parental correction. Constancy under negation - that the 'No' answer still admits that smacking is 'good parental correction' - helps us identify this presupposition.

Here are some more examples of presupposition:

  • Where is your book about pragmatics? - The listener has a book about pragmatics.
  • Why do you like pragmatics? - The listener likes pragmatics.


Definiteness and Indefiniteness[edit]

Speech acts[edit]

According to speech act theory, the purpose of an utterance is not just to convey the intended information. There are three levels of speech acts:

  • Locution: The act of saying an utterance.
  • Illocution: The purpose of saying an utterance.
  • Perlocution: The effect of saying an utterance.

Speech acts can be classified into two categories:

  • Direct: The syntactic structure determines the illocutioanry force. For example, Please turn on the fans. is a direct speech act asking the listener to turn on the fans, since it's an imperative sentence used as a command.
  • Indirect: The speech act is not associated directly with the syntactic structure. For example, Could you please turn on the fans? is an indirect speech act. It is an interrogative acting as a command.

Searle's classification[edit]

Searle classified speech acts into five types:

  • Directive: Refers to commands. Examples include Please turn on the fans., You should probably turn on the fans. and Could you please turn on the fans?.
  • Expressive: Expresses a feeling. Examples include Nice to meet you!, Why, oh why, did you go? and I'm really excited about the camp.
  • Declaration: The speech actually does something. An example is I hereby declare Wikibooks to be the Website of the Year. In older systems, this is known as a performative. A common test for declarations is to insert hereby before the verb and see if it works.
  • Commissive: When you promise to do something in the future. Examples include I'll be there by noon and I'll see what I can do about your request.
  • Representative: This is the simplest. The speech act describes a state of affairs, e.g. I'm a little teapot.

Felicity conditions[edit]

The felicity conditions are conditions for the speech act to take effect. There are many different conditions in the literature, but these are the most common:

  • Preparatory conditions: The speaker has the authority or ability to perform the act, and it is the right situation for the speech act to take place. For example, if someone with no knowledge of computers says I will fix the computer tomorrow, a preparatory condition is not met.
  • Sincerity conditions: The speaker must mean what he or she says. For example, if a son says Yes to his mother when asked to tidy up his room, he may not really intend to clean it.
  • Essential condiitions: The listener should understand the purpose of the speech act. For example, if you say, Let's break the ice and the listener actually finds some ice and breaks it, the essential condition is not met.