HomeEnglish 420 (Fall 2017): Pragmatics*
TR 2:30PM - 3:45PM
Richard Young


(English Language and Linguistics; Mixed grad/undergrad) This is an introduction to pragmatics for undergraduates in the English department, students pursuing the M.A. in Applied English Linguistics, the Ph.D. in English Language and Linguistics, the Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition, and interested students from other departments.


Pragmatics is the study of the relationship between the meaning of an utterance and the context in which the utterance is produced. We normally think of people using language to produce utterances, though the act of production involves words and grammar but also vocal prosody, gesture, gaze, and bodily stance. The context of production is also much grander than the time and place of utterance and it includes the physical, spatial, temporal, social, interactional, institutional, political, and historical circumstances in which a person produces an utterance. By ‘utterance’ and ‘context’ we name systems of interconnection among very many features, and the study of the relationship between utterance and context is not to be undertaken lightly. Nonetheless it is a study that for centuries has been of great interest to philosophers, linguists, semioticians, and psychologists. And even if you don’t want to focus on pragmatics as a field of academic study, it’s worth considering a few questions that we will ask and try to answer in this course:

* I know the kind of actions I can perform with my body and with tools I use, but what kind of actions can I perform with my words?

* Sometimes, I am in conversation with somebody and, although we both know exactly the meaning of every word, I still don’t get what the other person is driving at. What am I missing?

* I know some people who are forever saying please and thank you, just like my mother taught me when I was a child. And then there are some other people I know who rarely say please or thank you, and I know my mother would say they are not being polite, but nobody else seems to bother. Why is that?

* Why did the defense attorney object when the prosecutor asked the defendant when he had stopped abusing his daughter?

* Say “It’s cold in here” and mean “It’s warm in here”. Can you do it? — And what are you doing as you do it? And is there only one way of doing it?

That last question was asked by a philosopher. Asking and answering questions like these is not just what we should do as students and scholars; it is also a matter of practical communication—especially communication among people from different social and cultural backgrounds. If you decide to take this course, I hope it will not only be one more step on the road to an academic qualification, but it should also be a means to make us all better communicators.

Required materials

Archer, D., Aijmer, K., & Wichmann, A. (2012). Pragmatics: An advanced resource book for students. Routledge.

Thirty-four supplementary readings are available for download from Box.