On Pragmatics

Interview with Mahmood Kadir, PhD Candidate:

Mahmood Kadir

Mahmood Kadir

Interviewed by Aras Ahmed Mhamad

AAM: How would you define pragmatics? What is the importance of this level of linguistics analysis?

MK: Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics developed in the late 1970s.Pragmatics studies how people comprehend and produce a communicative act or speech act in a concrete speech situation which is usually a conversation.

It distinguishes two meanings in each utterance of verbal communication. One is the informative or the sentence meaning, and the other the communicative or speaker meaning (Leech, 1983; Sperber & Wilson, 1986).

The ability to comprehend and/or produce a communicative act is referred to as pragmatic competence (Kasper, 1997) which often includes one’s knowledge about the social distance, social status between the speakers involved, the cultural knowledge such as politeness, and the linguistic knowledge both explicit and implicit.

AAM: What are the differences and similarities between pragmatics and semantics?

MK: The distinction between semantics and pragmatics is very important for many reasons. It is sometimes unclear whether a given phenomenon is semantics or pragmatics.  There are certain linguistic phenomena that may be considered at first glance as pragmatics but, because of their syntactic structure, they are semantics.

Some of these phenomena are factive verbs, empty categories, implicit arguments, and connotations. The semantics–pragmatics distinction leads us to shed light on other types of distinctions such as sentence versus utterances, meaning versus use, linguistic versus speakers’ meaning, and literal versus nonliteral use. The distinction should be drawn with respect to various things, such as implications, presuppositions, ambiguities, intuitions, knowledge, interpretations, rules and principles.

Semantics deals with linguistic facts about the utterance, while pragmatics deals with those aspects of meaning that involve the intentions and actions of language users (speaker and hearer).

The linguistic meaning of an utterance may fail to interpret what a speaker means. It may fail to interpret ambiguity, indexicality, implicature, non-truth conditional content, context dependent expressions and illocutionary force. In such cases, we have to rely on pragmatics to interpret their meanings.

The semantics-pragmatics distinction seems to undermine any theoretical role for the notion of presupposition, whether considered as semantics or pragmatics. Presupposition was treated according to semantics before the development of pragmatics. Treating presupposition as semantics kept the linguists away from finding a solution for the “projection problem”. This problem has been solved when it was seen as pragmatics.

Some linguists thought that the semantics-pragmatics distinction corresponds to the truth conditional versus non-truth conditional meaning. Some take semantics to be concerned with the truth conditional contents of utterances and sentences. They claimed that all sentences had truth conditions.

However, interrogatives and imperatives do not have truth conditions. In addition, the linguistic meaning of some declarative sentences may not determine a truth condition because of ambiguity or referential expressions, such as indexicals and demonstratives. We need to rely on pragmatics in such cases. The truth conditional content of a sentence such as ‘you are here’ is relative to the context of use rather than its linguistic meaning.

AAM: In recent years, linguists pay attention to the study of pragmatics more than the other levels of linguistics. What’s your comment on that?

MK: Linguists and philosophers paid great attention to pragmatics in the late 1970s. Pragmatics deals with the users of the language. It deals with extra linguistic information. It covers those aspects of meaning that semantics fails to take into account.

The distinction between semantics and pragmatics is very important. It should be drawn with respect to different things such as context, intuitions, interpretation and presupposition. Finally, pragmatics includes important aspects such as performative, speech acts, and implicature.

AAM: Pragmatics “can be a frustrating area of study because it requires us to make sense of people and what they have in mind”. Based on that sentence, what are the disadvantages of pragmatics?

MK: The disadvantage is that linguistic meaning and speaker’s meaning is filled by “context”. What a speaker means depends on the context of situation. There are two types of contextual information. They are narrow and broad context. Narrow context concerns information relevant to determine the semantic values of context-sensitive expressions.

Broad context is any information that the hearer takes into account to determine the speaker’s communicative intention. This broad context is relevant to pragmatics and does not literally determine content. In conclusion, context plays an important role in semantics as well as pragmatics depending on its type. Hence, in some situations, pragmatics does not work unless there is an actual context of speaking. If not, then, semantics overrides the whole process.

AAM: How can studying pragmatics help a critic analyze a work of literature, especially when it comes to the study of stylistics?

MK: It is certainly not an easy task to define the border between stylistics and pragmatics. The label “stylistics” is related to very specific writers and schools, such as Charles Bally and subsequently, in connection with idealist stylistics, Leo Spitzer, Dámaso Alonso and Amado Alonso.

In a different order of things, the discipline can also be linked with the work on functional language variation, where the term “style” overlaps with that of “register”, and is closer to the latter epistemological area. Recently, certain linguists have put this disciplinary label back in circulation as a branch of the old rhetoric, and currently Bally is looking for the foundations of a stylistics of language, beyond individual speech acts, and not limited to the ambit of literary creation (Salavador).

Moreover, it is noted that the closeness to some of the subdivisions within pragmatic linguistics -such as speech act theory, the study of politeness or metaphor and irony from the point of view of relevance theory- to the interest scholars are now showing in style, within the contribution made by pragmatics.

These are all factors that, taken together, have ushered in a new and explicit label for this area of the discipline: pragmastylistics. So, in view of the topic’s complexity and the possible points of connection with pragmatics, it would be worthwhile now revisiting certain epistemological areas where stylistics has taken root, to then go on to examine the different dimensions of style.


Kasper, G. (1997) ‘Can Pragmatic Competence Be Taught?’

Leech, G. (1983) Principles of Pragmatics, London: Longman.

Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. (1986) Relevance: Communication and Cognition, Oxford: Blackwell.

Pragmatics and stylistics, Vicent Salvador: http://www6.gencat.net/llengcat/noves/hm03hivern/docs/a_salvador.pdf

Mahmood Kadir Ibrahim was born in Anbar city in Al-Ramadi district in 1987. He is assistant lecturer at Kirkuk and Human Development Universities. He is teaching at the English Departments at these two universities. He has been awarded a fully funded PhD scholarship to pursue his study in the UK. He joined the University of Kirkuk and the University of Human Development in Iraq in 2011. He got his MA from Baghdad University in 2011 and his BA from Kirkuk University in 2009.

Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a freelancer. He is the Founder and Deputy Editor of SMART magazine, an independent English magazine that focuses on ‘Literature, Language, Society’. He is the Top Student of College of Languages at the Department of English/ University of Human Development, 2012. He is a columnist for the Kurdistan Tribune and a contributing writer for the ekurd.net and doznews.com. He is the Cultural Analyst at the Kurdish Review Newspaper, the only Kurdish-American newspaper in print. He is also the Editor in Chief of the Sorani section at the doznews.com

Copyright © 2013 Kurdistantribune.com

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