Pragmatics vs. Semantics

Here’s a link to a funny list about the strange hidden meanings behind British English politeness. It raises an interesting question: why is there such a difference between the words people use and what they really mean?

This distinction is called semantic meaning vs. pragmatic meaning. Semantics is the study of the intrinsic meaning of words and grammar, while pragmatics is the study of how language is perceived by an interlocutor. In other words, it’s the difference between a word’s dictionary meaning, and how it works in a certain context, said by a certain person, to another certain person, with a certain relationship, and a certain communicative objective, etc.

There are many easy universal every-day examples. For example: you successfully finish a task in work, your boss says, “Good job.” The semantic and pragmatic meanings are simple and clear. Now imagine the same boss says, “Good job,” after you just accidentally deleted the task you were writing. We technically have the same semantic meaning but the opposite pragmatic meaning; this time a sarcastic insult as opposed to a reassuring compliment.

My point is that learning grammar and translating vocabulary isn’t everything. We need more than just isolated examples of language; we need context, emotions, relationships, facial expressions, etc. Language is a truly complex and intricate skill that cannot be described solely by systems and rules; developing the feeling for the implicit features of communication is something that only comes with face-to-face practice. So, in conclusion, and once again, no excuses – get out there and practise.


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