You are on page 1of 1

Key concepts in ELT

Pragmatics
pretation would be in breach of the maxim of Quantity,
one of the mixtures of the Co-operative Principle, i.e.
too much has been said.
The Co-operative Principle ('make your contribution
such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by
the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange
in which you are engaged') is the one generally used to
reach the implicatures of utterances, and can be broken
down into four broad categories of maxims: Quality
(speak the truth, and what you have evidence for),
Quantity (say neither too much nor too little), Manner
(avoid verbosity, obscurity, etc.), and Relation (talk
relevantly).
More recent developments have concentrated on narrowing or expanding the Co-operative Principle. Sperber and Wilson (1986), for instance, propose the
principle of relevance, and suggest that all the earlier
maxims can be subsumed under this principle. Others
like Leech (1983) propose more principles, such as the
Politeness Principle, the Irony Principle, and the Banter Principle. Formulations like 'I'm a terrible cook'
may be taken not seriously (in spite of the maxim of
quality) because of the dictates of the Modesty Maxim,
one of the maxims of the Politeness Principle. Brown
and Levinson (1987) provide an alternative treatment
of politeness in terms of S's and H's face requirements.

Basic to all pragmatic research is speech-act theory,


first developed by Austin and Searle, and Grice's
theory of implicature. Speech-act theory sees language
use not merely as saying, but also as doing. If using
language is doing something, there must be a doer, S,
and also someone, H, to whom or for whom the action
(speech act) is done. Which speech act is being performed is determined not only by the form of words Received August 1993
used, but also who S and H are and how they are
related, and the physical context. An utterance like
'Can you play the piano?' is more likely to be interpreted as a request if H is obviously able to do so, and S is
in a position to ask H to, and if there is a piano in the
vicinity. If these conditions do not apply (e.g. H has
just recovered from a stroke, or is the parent of S, or Further reading
there is no piano in the vicinity), the utterance would Brown, P. and S. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some
Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge:
more likely be interpreted as a question.
Cambridge University Press.
Whereas speech-art theory focuses on rules for the Leech, G. N. 1983. Principles of Pragmatics.
London: Longman.
appropriate performance of particular speech acts,
Cambridge:
Grice's theory of implicature focuses on principles Levinson, S. 1983. Pragmatics.
that inform the problem-solving task of determining
Cambridge University Press.
the particular speech act being performed. An implica- Sperber, D. and D. Wilson. 1986. Relevance:
ture is distinguished from what is 'said' (what is in the
Communication
and
Cognition.
Oxford:
sentence, as it were). Based on Grice's theory, thereBlackwell.
fore, the earlier utterance 'Can you play the piano?'
can be discounted as a (mere) question if H obviously Dr Peter Tan, Department of English Language and
has the ability to play the piano, because such an inter- Literature, National University of Singapore
100

ELT Journal Volume 48/1 January 1994 Oxford University Press 1994

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ by guest on July 24, 2013

The philosopher Charles Morris saw pragmatics as


part of the science of signs or semiotics. Semiotics
could be divided up into three branches of enquiry:
syntactics (or syntax), which is the study of 'the formal
relations of signs to one another'; semantics, the study
of 'the relations of signs to the objects to which the
signs are applicable'; and pragmatics, the study of 'the
relations of signs to interpreters'. (Levinson 1983:1). It
has since then been common to divide the study of
language into for levels: phonology, syntax, semantics,
and pragmatics. Phonology, syntax, and semantics are
often seen as the three components of grammar, which
investigates language without specific reference to
context or to interpreters. Pragmatics would therefore
be distinguished from the other levels as the branch of
linguistics that investigates the rules and principles
that govern language in use in its various contexts
(situational, sociological, ideological, etc.). By definition, therefore, pragmatics is inter-disciplinary in
nature.