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Pragmatic vs. Semantic Meaning: Sorting It Out

written by: Courtney Crass • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 6/6/2012

Learning the difference between semantic and pragmatic meaning can help new English language learners avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings. Learn about the difference between the two terms and review examples of each.

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    When learning the English language, understanding the differences between semantic and pragmatic meaning can be a valuable tool to maximize your linguistic ability. Although both are terms used in relation to the meanings of words, their usage is drastically different.

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    What Is Semantics?

    Semantics refers to the meaning of words in a language and the meaning within the sentence.

    Semantics considers the meaning of the sentence without the context. The field of semantics focuses on three basic things: “the relations of words to the objects denoted by them, the relations of words to the interpreters of them, and, in symbolic logic, the formal relations of signs to one another (syntax)" [1]. Semantics is just the meaning that the grammar and vocabulary impart, it does not account for any implied meaning.

    In this sense, there's a focus on the general 'rules' of language usage.

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    Pragmatic Word Usage

    Pragmatic meaning looks at the same words and grammar used semantically, except within context. In each situation, the various listeners in the conversation define the ultimate meaning of the words, based on other clues that lend subtext to the meaning.

    For example, if you were told to, “Crack the window,” and the room was a little stuffy, and the speaker had just said prior to this that they were feeling a little warm, then you would know, pragmatically, that the speaker would like you to open the window a 'crack' or just a little.

    If you were with a friend who was locked out of his home, and you were standing at a back door trying to get inside, your friend might say 'crack that window' and literally mean to put a 'crack' in the window, or break the window.

    Confused? Let's dig deeper.

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    Differences in Meaning

    As the example above shows, considering both the pragmatic and semantic meaning of your sentence is important when communicating with other people. Although semantics is concerned only with the exact, literal meaning of the words and their interrelations, pragmatic usage focuses on the inferred meaning that the speakers and listeners perceive.

    The following examples demonstrate the difference between the two:

    She hasn’t taken a shower.

    He was so tired he could sleep for days.

    In both of these examples, the context and pragmatic meaning really define the sentence.

    In the first, did the speaker really mean to say that the woman has not ever taken a shower, not even once? Although the sentence says just that, the listener in the conversation may understand, based on other factors, that the speaker means that the woman they are referring to has not taken a shower ... today.

    In the second example, we have a guy who is so tired he can sleep for days. Is he really going to sleep for days? Semantically, we would need to take that sentence to mean exactly that. But, in casual conversation, the listeners and speaker might tell you that the guy was just saying he was really, really tired, and using those words to convey that meaning, instead of saying, 'he was really tired'.

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    Idioms and Miscommunications

    New English language learners need to learn how to understand the pragmatic meaning of the sentence in order to avoid miscommunications.

    Some ways to make the transition easier is by learning phrases and idioms that are commonly said, but whose true meanings differ from the semantic meaning.

    In the example used above, “Crack the window” is a common phrase or idiom meant to open the window so that only a crack is showing.

    Although full comprehension of pragmatic meaning in a new language can take time, students can speed up the process by practicing the most common exceptions to the semantic meaning.

    Ready to learn more? Here are some common idioms in the English language using food terms, such as 'not my cup of tea'.

    You may also find this lesson plan on teaching semantic meaning helpful.

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    Sources

    [1] "Semantics." 2009. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Columbia University Press: New York.

    [2] Griffiths, Patrick. An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics. Edingburgh, Scotland:Edinburgh University Press, 2006.