Pragmatics for undergraduates

Author: Billy Clark


Some thoughts on teaching pragmatics to undergraduate linguistics students. Suggesting a model based initially on interpretation processes.

Table of contents


Pragmatics is an important part of the discipline of linguistics, addressing questions about how language is used in communication: how linguistic communicators choose the forms of their utterances; how interpreters arrive at a representation of what is communicated; the role played by non-linguistic factors, including cognitive and social contexts. Some courses focus more on production and others on interpretation, while some focus equally on both sets of processes. While all courses should make clear that production and interpretation are not mirror images, and that they are equally important, an initial focus on interpretation lends itself to a neat module structure which raises issues relevant to most areas of linguistics.

A logical beginning is to distinguish coded and inferred communication, and then move on to distinguish linguistic semantics from pragmatics. At this stage, it is important to stress that there is still considerable ongoing debate about exactly how to draw this distinction. The next step is to look at the considerable amount of inference involved in linguistic communication. The central goal of pragmatics on this view is to explain what guides inferential processes. This leads to the consideration of particular approaches, usually beginning with the work of Grice (1989). This is a clear, logical structure, arranged in order of progressive difficulty.

A course which considers a rich set of data alongside theoretical approaches will raise important issues about the relationship between theories and data. One key issue concerns the use of intuitions as data, which can be particularly problematic when considering questions of meaning.

As with many topics, some technical terms also have everyday, non-technical senses, so it is important that classroom exercises explore what a technical term is and how terms are being used. Other useful activities include general discussion, sometimes based around particular readings, presentations, exercises designed to consolidate understanding of particular topics, and the application of theoretical tools to the analysis of data. This last activity often marks a significant change in the nature of the class. Grundy (2000) suggests that students often find pragmatics easy in the beginning and later find that it is very difficult indeed. Discussing an example informally is quite natural. Distinguishing what is encoded from what is inferred can be difficult at first. But applying theoretical tools to data is often problematic to the extent that teachers wonder whether they are really teaching students objectively to apply theoretical tools rather than to perform in a particular way in the face of examples. Students often feel that theoretical and analytical approaches are counterintuitive at best.

These difficulties can be addressed by discussing explicitly the nature of the confusion, which derives from the distance between everyday intuitions and objective investigation. This reinforces work on the nature of theories and data, as well as helping students to understand what it means to test a theory.

Assessment can involve traditional essays, definitional exercises, problem-solving tasks, classroom presentations and exams. Students may also consolidate their work by undertaking their own research projects.

There are a number of useful introductory textbooks. The three listed in the bibliography are possible starting points.


Green, G.M. (1996). Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding, 2nd edition. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Grundy, P. (2000). Doing Pragmatics, 2nd edition. London: Edward Arnold.

Thomas, J.A. (1995). Meaning in Interaction: an Introduction to Pragmatics. Harlow: Longman.

Grice, P. (1989) Studies in the Way of Words. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Related links

LSA Fields of Linguistics paper on semantics and pragmatics, by Bill Ladusaw, available at

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