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Concourse 2



The first thing to get clear is the distinction between pragmatics and semantics.  It is not universally accepted that there actually is a clear-cut distinction and the fields certainly overlap.  For the purposes of this guide, however, we will accept that:

There is a separate guide to semantics on this site (new tab) and much of that is repeated here in an effort to get the concepts clear.  The fact that there is such repetition, of course, bears out the assertion that the two fields overlap.
This guide will not repeat what is said there concerning lexical meaning, (non)compositionality, lemmas, denotation, connotation and reference etc. so if any of those terms are a mystery to you, you can follow the guide to semantics before tackling this one.  It is not, however, a pre-condition for understanding what follows.


Use and Usage
Signification and Value

The distinction here is between sentence meaning (semantics proper) and utterance meaning (the concern of pragmatics) and lies at the heart of communicative language teaching.  Take, for example, the following two exchanges:

  1. Two strangers on the street:
    1. A: Excuse me, do you know if there's a bank near here?
    2. B: Yes, there's one just around the next corner.  Turn right there.
    3. A: Thanks.
    4. B: No problem.
  2. Two strangers in the street:
    1. A: William Butler Yeats wrote a poem called The Cloths of Heaven.
    2. B: Asphodel grows widely in southern Greece and is a plant I'm very fond of.
    3. A: My name is Mary and I'm an accountant.
    4. B: The speed of sound in dry air at 20°C is approximately 343 metres per second.

In exchange 1. real communication has taken place.  In other words, the utterances of the two speakers carry communicative value in terms of the message.  Widdowson and others refer to this as language use.
In exchange 2. on the other hand, no communication of any value has taken place.  We, and both speakers, are able to understand the meaning of what is said (i.e., its significance) but there is no communicative value in the utterances.  This is language usage, not use.

For slightly more, see the guide to semantics (linked above and below).


Communicative force
Utterance meaning

This, again, is repetition of what is in the guide to semantics, with a different example.
If you hear:
    There's a fire in the living room
you may put a number of interpretations on the sentence depending on the relationship you have with the speaker, your current position, your current state of knowledge and so on.

Take the sentence at face value as a piece of information
In this case, you are focused on the locutionary force of what you have heard and are now aware that there is a fire in the living room – no more, no less.  You may, of course, have also processed the noun fire and understood what kind of fire is meant here.  You have interpreted the sentence meaning.
Another way of saying this is that you have understood the propositional content of what has been said.
Take it that the speaker has something important to communicate
If you understand what you have heard to mean, for example:
    Quick, get the fire extinguisher and phone the fire brigade!
    Please go and sit there.  It's warmer than here and you'll be more comfortable
then you are focused on the illocutionary force, i.e., the meaning intended or the meaning perceived – the utterance meaning.
Do something
If, on hearing the statement, you immediately telephone the fire brigade or go to the living room and get warm and comfortable, you have demonstrated the perlocutionary force.  This refers to the fact that an utterance like this may actually produce a reaction in the hearer.

What determines what we understand?

What we understand from an utterance lies at the heart of pragmatics rather than semantics and is determined by:

  1. the nature of the hearer / reader
  2. the intentions that person has concerning the exchange
  3. the context in which something is heard or read (this may be referred to as the person's ontology: the set of concepts and categories which make up that person's understanding of the world).

For example, on hearing:
    Give me the gun!
what is understood may vary depending on:

  1. The nature of the hearer:
    If the hearer is a fellow gunsmith, the utterance may be interpreted as a simple imperative and will probably be complied with as part of the normal working day.
    If the hearer is a violent criminal being addressed by an armed police officer, the utterance will also be perceived as an imperative but one which implies a threat of being shot.
    If the hearer is another child, the utterance may be interpreted as a request for cooperation in a game.
    If the hearer is a non-speaker of English, the utterance may simply be understood as something said with no meaning attached.
  2. The intentions of the hearer:
    If the hearer intends to be cooperative, the utterance may be interpreted as a simple request.
    If the hearer intends to be non-co-operative, the utterance may be interpreted as a threat or an indication of aggression.
  3. The context:
    If the context is a stand-off in the street between a police officer and a woman with a gun, the utterance may constitute a threat or a command.
    If the context is a shooting competition in a gun club, the utterance may constitute a simple request.
    If the context is that of a carpenter at work, the utterance may constitute a request for someone to hand over a machine for driving in nails.

For slightly more, see the guide to semantics, linked above and below.


Gricean maxims

This section is again repeated in the guide to semantics but is extended here later to see what is meant and what the implications are.  A version of what follows appears in the guide to semantics but this guide will return to the maxims set out below after a short diversion into pragmatics theory.

Herbert Paul Grice's work is relevant to the teaching of language using any communicative approach.
If one starts from the premise that utterances have some kind of illocutionary force, i.e., an intended meaning which the hearer understands, we need to know something about the principles at work which allow the meaning to be understood.
Grice's work is not, of course, without its critics so the following is, at best, the theory, at worst, simply a hypothesis.
There are four main maxims which determine how interactions proceed.  Overriding all four is the Cooperative Principle.  In Grice's words, this is:

Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.
(Grice 1989: 26)

The four maxims we follow to achieve this are:

    1. Don't say what you believe to be false.
    2. Don't say things for which you have no evidence.
    1. Be informative enough.
    2. Don't over-inform.
    1. Be relevant.
    1. Avoid obscurity.
    2. Avoid ambiguity.
    3. Be brief.
    4. Be orderly.

There is no implication here that Grice was suggesting that this is how people ought to communicate with one another, in terms of giving advice.  The hypothesis is, on the other hand, that speakers proceed in communication as if they were applying the 4 maxims.

In order to understand how Gricean maxims affect communication (and therefore, be able to teach and present language naturally) we need to understand three key ideas.


Three key ideas

Now that we have, so to speak, cleared a few conceptual decks, we can consider three key ideas that lie at the heart of both semantics and pragmatics.  The first two of these are usually taken to be semantic issues but, for the purposes of language teaching, we need not be too prescriptive in dividing semantics from pragmatics.



Entailment is to do with the truth of propositions.

Consider this simple sentence:

  1. Peter and Mary found a peacock in their garden shed

Which of the following cannot be true if the sentence above is true?

  1. Peter and Mary have a garden
  2. There is a shed in Peter and Mary's garden
  3. Peter and Mary do not have a shed
  4. Somebody found a peacock
  5. A peacock was found
  6. There was a peacock in the shed

Click here when you have an answer.

To show entailment, we have to see that sentence A cannot be true if sentence 3. is true and that, conversely, sentence 3. cannot be true if sentence A is true.
If sentence A is true then sentences 1., 2., 4., 5., and 6. are all true.  If any of those second-level sentences is false, for example, that Peter and Mary don't have a garden, that no peacock was found or nobody found a peacock, then sentence A cannot be true.  Sentences 1., 2., 4., 5., and 6. are all entailed with sentence A.



Implicature is different.  It means that the truth of one sentence implies the truth of another but does not require it.

Here's our example sentence:

  1. Mary smoked a cigarette outside the theatre

We can have a number of entailed sentences here, such as:

  1. There is a person called Mary
  2. A cigarette was smoked by Mary
  3. Mary was outside the theatre

and if i., ii., or iii., is not true, then sentence a. cannot be true.

However, the following sentences are not entailed, they are implications:

  1. Mary did not smoke a cigarette inside the theatre (she may have done, but the implication is that she didn't).
  2. Mary smoked a cigar (that sentence or its negation does not affect the truth of sentence a. although the implication is that she smoked a cigarette, not a cigar.  She may have smoked both, of course.)
  3. Mary didn't smoke two cigarettes (but she may have).


Implicature can be cancelled but entailment cannot.
For example, if we say:
    Mary and Peter found a peacock in their garden shed and they don't have a shed
    Mary smoked a cigarette outside the theatre and she was not near the theatre
then we are talking nonsense, because entailment cannot be cancelled.

But if we say:
    Mary smoked a cigarette outside the theatre and then another when she went in
    Mary smoked a cigarette outside the theatre and then smoked a cigar
we have implications (that she didn't smoke inside the theatre or that she smoked only a cigarette) cancelled by the additional clauses following and.


Implications and maxims

Implication is also, of course, at work in conjunction with Grice's maxims.  If we take an exchange such as:
    A: I have a letter to post
    B: There's a box over the road
we have to form some understanding of what the speakers are implying and to do that we unconsciously use Grice's maxims alongside our knowledge of the world (sometimes referred to as encyclopaedic knowledge).  We assume, therefore:

  1. That A's statement is not simply intended to inform B of a random fact.  It needs to be interpreted as some kind of request for information from B concerning where to put the letter.  This adheres to the maxim of quantity because B assumes that A is not over-informing.  There is, therefore, a communicative purpose (or value) in what A has said.
    B will also assume that A is telling the truth about the letter, adhering to the maxim of quality.
  2. That B's statement concerning a box refers to a post box, not a cardboard box of cat food.  This adheres to the maxim of relation because A assumes that B's information is relevant to what has been said and true (quality again).  It is also evidence of the speakers' and our knowledge of the world because we can relate what happens to letters with where to put them.
  3. Both speakers are engaged in a sensible effort to communicate, avoiding obscurity, being brief but informative enough and being orderly.  They are both, in other words, adhering to the maxim of manner.

It is difficult, but not unimaginably so, to interpret the exchange differently so the analysis of pragmatics involves a certain interpretation on our part.  Unlike grammar, there are no strict rules to types of exchanges and what they could mean.  Nevertheless, we can and do make reasonable assumptions about what speakers intend.



Presupposition is also different from entailment.  With presupposition, a truth is taken for granted in what one says.  Presupposition is, therefore akin to implicature.

Here, the example sentence is:

  1. The garden shed fell down in the storm

The presupposition here is that there is or was a shed in the garden that was standing upright.  The entailment (or one of them) is:

  1. The garden shed is no longer standing
    but if we say
  2. The garden shed is standing upright
    then sentence I. must be false

However, if we say:

  1. The shed didn't fall down in the storm

There is no longer an entailed sense that the shed is standing upright or not because

  1. The garden shed may be standing, having survived the storm
  2. The garden shed may have fallen down for another reason and not be standing

Presupposition survives the negation of the sentence but entailment does not.

Presuppositions, like implicatures, can, of course, be cancelled so we can have:

  1. The shed didn't fall down in the storm – it was the earthquake that did for it

If you would like to try a matching test on these three concepts, click here to do it.
The example sentence for the exercise is:
    The dog has chased the neighbour's cat over the fence.


Going back to Grice

Now that we understand a little about entailment, implication and presupposition, it is possible to look at how to apply Grice's maxims to the kinds of language we present to students in our classrooms.

The first point to remember is that Grice's maxims and the phenomena of entailment, implication and presupposition are not confined to English.  All languages work this way.

    1. Don't say what you believe to be false.
    2. Don't say things for which you have no evidence.

While the exercise of imagination in classrooms is arguably motivating and engaging, there has to be a limit and a point in which reality intrudes or we will not be preparing our learners for communication in the real world.  This is the whole point, of course, of personalisation of the target language or skill which we are practising.
For example, forcing a role on a learner which is wholly out of step with his or her real characteristics will lead to all kinds of implications, entailments and presuppositions which will not reflect the reality in which we hope the learner will be able to use English accurately and effectively for communication.
For example, one website offering teachers materials and ideas for use in class suggests that a role play involving arguments between neighbours

can be as absurd or ridiculous as the students’ want, as long as they are speaking and using the language correctly
https://busyteacher.org (apostrophe misuse in the original)

This ignores the fact that most learners will never find themselves in anything like this kind of situation and will be using language and taking on roles which have no possible relevance to them.  They will not, of course, be 'using the language correctly' because the whole exercise is based on usage rather than use.  Making something 'absurd or ridiculous' may entertain but will result in entailments and presuppositions which bear no relationship to the real worlds of the learners.
MORAL: we need to match the roles our learners are expected to take on in classrooms to the real roles they must or may have to assume outside the classroom.

    1. Be informative enough.
    2. Don't over-inform.

Cultural issues play a part here but the construction of natural language, whether written or spoken, depends partly at least on knowing what and how much information to include and, crucially, who should supply it.  For example, here's a dialogue intended to practise the present perfect and past simple forms:

A: Have you ever been to Paris?
B: Yes, I have.
A: When did you go?
B: I went last year.

The problems with this are at least:

  1. We almost never ask a question in English without giving a reason for asking (unless it's obvious), so the first line is not informative enough and might more usefully be
    I'm thinking about taking a weekend break.  Have you ever been to Paris?
  2. The response to the question is also not informative enough so a better version might be
    Yes, I have.  I went last year for a long weekend.  What do you want to know?

Notice that the structural focus remains.  All that has changed is making the dialogue fit with basic conversational maxims.
MORAL 1: make example dialogues realistic.
MORAL 2: avoid presenting a travesty of communication.

    1. Be relevant.

This is only an issue when language is presented without a context.  For example, the following two mini-dialogues would be understood very differently depending on the context supplied by the picture:

artist painter
A: What's your brother do?
B: He's a painter.  Why do you ask?
A: What's your brother do?
B: He's a painter.  Why do you ask?

Two possible responses from A are:

In these cases, A's second comments can only be relevant in one dialogue.  If you swap them around, the result is nonsense or ambiguity.

MORAL: Maintain relevance by supplying context for language.

    1. Avoid obscurity.
    2. Avoid ambiguity.
    3. Be brief.
    4. Be orderly.

As an example for this, consider the following coordinated clauses:

  1. He sold his house and lived in Florida on the money
  2. Her name is Michelle and her father's called Harry
  3. He went into the garden and started digging

In sentence 1., we have the coordinator and used to express a number of meanings:
Implication A: he sold his house in order to be able to live in Florida
Implication B: he could not have afforded to live in Florida if he had not sold his house
Presupposition: he owned his own house
Entailment A: he sold his house before he went to live in Florida
Entailment B: he went to live in Florida after he sold his house
Reversing the clauses makes no sense, therefore:
    *He lived in Florida on the money and sold his house

In sentence 2. the coordinator works simply to attach the ideas to each other and the meaning could just as well be expressed in reverse:
    Her father's called Harry and her name is Michelle
so there is no implication of reason, no entailment of event ordering and no presupposition.

In sentence 3 we have slightly different meanings:
Implication: he went into the garden in order to dig (which could be cancelled if we add because he didn't know what else to do)
Presupposition: it was his garden (which can be cancelled if we follow the sentence with and later he got in his car and went home to his own garden)
Entailment A: he went into the garden before he started digging
Entailment B: he started digging after he went into the garden
Because of the entailments, reversing the clauses produces nonsense:
    He started digging and went into the garden.

Entailments are everywhere in language.  Consider, as another two examples, these sentences in which the entailment can be made clear by pictorial clues:

cycling cycling 2
They were cycling in the park when they met. He was cycling to work when he fell on the ice and broke his leg.

In the example on the left, the entailment is:
    meeting did not interrupt the cycling
In the example on the right, the entailment is:
    falling off put an end to the cycling

MORAL: Don't let your learners assume that coordination is simple addition or that tense use always implies the same relationship between events.  In more general terms, be alert for hidden entailments in language.  They are almost always there.

If you would like to try a short matching test to see if you can remember the characteristics of the four maxims, click here.



There are times in classrooms when we need to check our learners' understanding (or lack of it) of what we have said or presented / practised.
We do this frequently by asking questions:

In both cases, we need to bear entailment in mind and avoid asking questions which rely on implication or presupposition.  For example,

Related guides
communicative language teaching (CLT) for the general guide to the area which is, of course, based on an understanding of pragmatics
turn taking for the guides to closely related areas which all refer to pragmatic competence
adjacency pairs
sociolinguistics this is a guide to the main concerns of studies concerning how social factors influence language varieties
discourse index for the in-service index to the area
skills index for the in-service index to the area

Allan, K & Jaszczolt, KM (Eds.), 2012, The Cambridge Handbook of Pragmatics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Busy Teacher Admin, undated, 10 Fresh Roleplay Ideas for General English from https://busyteacher.org/7371-10-roleplay-ideas-for-general-english.html [accessed 12/10/2020]
Grice, HP, 1989, Studies in the Way of Words, Harvard: Harvard University Press
Griffiths, P, 2006, An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Widdowson, HG, 1978, Teaching Language as Communication, London: Oxford University Press