BOOKS:    Defining Pragmatics


Series: Cambridge Research Surveys in Linguistics

Mira Ariel

Tel-Aviv University


Paperback   (ISBN: 9780521732031)

Hardback     (ISBN: 9780521517836)



2012    Allan, Keith. Defining pragmatics (review). Language, Volume 88, Number 2, June 2012, pp. 413-416. [PDF].

2012    Ariel’s response and Allan’s response to the response [PDF].

2011    Odebunmi, Akin. Review of Mira Ariel, Defining Pragmatics. Discourse Studies 13 (5), 663–664. [PDF].

2011    Teubert, Wolfgang. Is pragmatics the answer to our quest for meaning? A review of Mira Ariel's new book Defining Pragmatics. Language and Dialogue 1 (1), 105–127. [PDF].

2011    Zhao, Qingli. Review of Mira Ariel, Defining Pragmatics. Journal of Pragmatics 43 (13), 3284–3286. [PDF].


1. What's under the big-tent pragmatics?; Part I. Deconstructing pragmatics: 2. Surveying multiple-criterion definitions for pragmatics 3. Problematizing the criteria; Part II. Reconstructing pragmatics: 4. Grammar as code, pragmatics as inference 5. Inferential pragmatic theories; Part III. Mapping the big tent: 6. The canon 7. Functional syntax 8. Beyond pragmatics 9. Many questions, some resolutions.

From the Preface

If only linguistic expressions were well-behaved. We would have had a very neat picture of grammar versus pragmatics. Grammar would be restricted to the conventional which would simultaneously and necessarily also be truth-conditional, and pragmatics would be nonconventional (inferential) and simultaneously and necessarily also nontruth-conditional. As Recanati (2004a:445) reminds us, however, “we can’t have it both ways” for either field. Semantics can’t always be both conventional and truth-conditional, and pragmatics can’t always be both inferential and nontruth-conditional. The same applies to other criteria proposed in the literature for distinguishing grammar and pragmatics. Recanati’s conclusion is that the grammar/pragmatics division of labor can be absolutely drawn only for prototypical cases. It must be stipulative for nonprototypical phenomena (such as conventional implicatures). Other linguists have applied the grammar/ pragmatics division of labor inconsistently for it to work, adopting different criteria for different pragmatic questions (e.g. Horn and Ward, 2004). Many semanticists simultaneously hold criteria which clash with one another for the complementary semantics, because they are reluctant to give up any one of them. Thus, even if context-dependent, some phenomena count as semantic for some researchers, if they are truth-conditional (Recanati, 2004a). Yet other linguists have given up on the grammar-pragmatics division of labor altogether. The grammar/pragmatics division of labor is in trouble. We here offer a solution for the definition dilemma.


The research survey in this book traces the history of the grammar/pragmatics divide, and reaches the conclusion, very much in line with Relevance theory, that only a code versus inference distinction can serve as a solid basis for a grammar/pragmatics division of labor. Once this has been established, we can consistently apply this criterion, and this criterion alone, to a rich array of pragmatic topics in order to identify which aspects are indeed pragmatic. In following this procedure Defining pragmatics is unique. Although pragmatists have been quite aware of the definition problem for the field, textbook writers, starting with Levinson (1983) and ending with Huang (2007), as well as compilers of reference books on pragmatics (Horn and Ward, 2004, Kasher, 1998b) never followed through on their own conclusions that the field of pragmatics, as they themselves accept it to be, cannot be based on a solid coherent definition. They each followed a well-trodden track where pragmatics was mechanically defined as a list of topics, each of which belongs in pragmatics, even if grammatical (encoded) aspects are crucially involved as well. Thus was born and institutionalized the big-tent pragmatics field. Relevance theoreticians, the only ones who have long advocated the code/ inference distinction as a grammar/pragmatics divide and applied it consistently, have focused on a rather small subset of the topics considered pragmatic. We need to apply it to the rest, and this is what Defining pragmatics attempts to do. The importance of the book does not so much lie in the new findings and claims it offers, as in the systematicity and absolute consistentency of the application of the “pragmatic method” of teasing codes from inferences, as well as the breadth of the topics subjected to this analysis, namely, canonical, noncanonical, and even “beyond” pragmatic topics.


The goal of this book is to deconstruct the field of pragmatics in its rather hollow, big- tent sense, and to demonstrate how it can be reconstituted on a solid division of labor between grammar and pragmatics. In order to do pragmatics we need an inferential pragmatics theory (such as Grice, 1989, Sperber and Wilson, 1986/1995), and we need to apply it to linguistic utterances, so as to determine where grammar ends and pragmatics begins. We must do it on the basis of natural language data. The idea is that there is no pragmatic turf, with a predetermined set of topics that pragmatics has to include or exclude. Sociocultural phenomena, for example, often excluded from pragmatics in the Anglo-American tradition by stipulation, should not automatically be ruled out. Thus construed, the study of pragmatics combines insights from both semantics/pragmatics Border Seeker pragmatists (such as Horn (1972 and onwards), Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995), Carston (2002)) and Problem Solver pragmatists (such as Kuno (1971 and onwards), Prince (1978b and onwards), Hopper and Thompson (1980)). A unified view of the field can be construed.








Linguistics, Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv, Israel, 69978

Phone No.: 972-3-6405026; Fax No.: 972-3-5221044