Pragmatics Meaning vs. Semantics Meaning
Curious about the pragmatic meaning vs. semantic meaning in linguistics? Learning the difference can not only help linguistics students, it can also help new language learners. The following article describes the difference between the two terms and shows examples of them.
Whether you are taking a class on linguistics or are teaching a language class, understanding pragmatic meaning vs. semantic meaning can be a valuable tool to maximize learning in the classroom. Although semantics and pragmatics are both terms used in relation to the meanings of words, their usage is drastically different.

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 focus 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.

Pragmatic Meaning

When you consider the pragmatic meaning vs. semantic meaning, you find that they are quite different. Pragmatics deals with all of those same words and grammar except within context. In each situation, the various listeners in the conversation define the ultimate meaning of the words. For example, if you were to tell your wife, “You look good in that dress,” it would be a compliment according to the semantic meaning. The meaning of the words and the sentence on their own is a positive thing. Pragmatically, this could be insult. Had your wife just tried on a different dress? She could assume that your intended compliment actually implied that her first outfit looked terrible.

Pragmatics Meaning vs. Semantics Meaning

As the example above shows, considering both the pragmatic and semantic meaning of your sentence is important. Although semantics is concerned only with the meaning of the words and their interrelations, pragmatics focuses on the meaning that the speakers and listeners perceive. The following examples demonstrate the difference between the two:
She hasn’t taken a shower. (today)
He was so tired he could sleep for days.
In both of these examples, the context and pragmatic meaning really define the sentence. Has she really not taken a shower ever? Although the sentence says just that, the listener could assume that she may not have taken a shower today if they were not considering the pragmatic meaning. 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? Only the listeners and speaker could tell you. He may be just expressing that he is really tired or he could actually mean that he plans on sleeping for days.

Reasons to Teach Pragmatic Meaning vs. Semantic Meaning

New language learners need to start learning how to understand the pragmatic meaning of the sentence in order to avoid miscommunications. If they plan on fully comprehending the language and the meaning, they will have to learn how to process the pragmatic meaning of the sentence. Some ways to make the transition easier is by teachingphrases and idioms that are commonly said, but whose true meanings differ from the semantic meaning. An example of this is “Crack the window.” When teaching the pragmatic meaning of phrases, explain to your students what the actual meaning of the phrase is. In this case, you would explain that “crack the window” means to open the window so only a crack is showing. Although full comprehension of pragmatic meaning in language can take time, students can speed up the process by practicing the most common exceptions to the semantic meaning.


[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.

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