The main difference between semantics and pragmatics is that the semantics studies the meaning of words and their meaning within sentences whereas the pragmatics studies the same words and meanings but with emphasis on their context as well.
Both semantics and pragmatics are two main branches of study in linguistics. They both study the meaning and the significance of words in a language. But there is a distinct difference between semantics and pragmatics.
Key Areas Covered
1. What is Semantics
– Definition, Characteristics
2. What is Pragmatics
– Definition, Characteristics
3. What are the Similarities Between Semantics and Pragmatics
– Outline of Common Features
4. What is the Difference Between Semantics and Pragmatics
– Comparison of Key Differences
Linguistics, Languages, Semantics, Pragmatics, Words
What is Semantics
Semantics is simply the branch of linguistics that concerns studying the meanings of words as well as their meanings within a sentence. Thus, it is the study of linguistic meaning, or more precisely, the study of the relation between linguistic expressions and their meaning. Therefore, it considers the meaning of a sentence without paying attention to their context.
To explain further what semantics means in linguistics, it can be denoted that “it is the study of the interpretation of signs or symbols used in agents or communities within particular circumstances and contexts”. Hence, according to this, sounds, facial expressions, body language, and proxemics have semantic (meaningful) content, and each of these comprises several branches of study. Moreover, in written language, things like paragraph structure and punctuation bear semantic content; other forms of language bear other semantic content.
Thus, semantics focuses on three basic aspects: “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)”. Therefore, semantics also looks at the ways in which the meanings of words can be related to each other.
Furthermore, semantics has two main categories as lexical semantics and phrasal semantics. Accordingly, lexical semantics concerns the meanings of words and the meaning of relationships among words, while phrasal semantics concerns the meaning of syntactic units, which are larger than words. Similarly, semantic properties are the components of meanings of words. Thus, under lexical semantics, semantics analyze words and see how they can be related to each other with relations to synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, polysemy, figures of speech, etc. Phrasal semantics concerns concepts such as paraphrase, contradiction, ambiguity, mutual entailment, etc.
For example, this sentence – “He is so cool.”
Semantically, this sentence can be interpreted as – He is very nice, a compliment to the person, which is the literal meaning. But under pragmatics, this sentence suggests the context: the positive attitude of the speaker towards the person. This is the intended or the inferred meaning in the sentence.
Semantics looks at these relationships in language and how these meanings are created. This is a necessity for understanding how language works as a whole.
What is Pragmatics
Pragmatics is another branch of linguistics. Similar to semantics, pragmatics also studies the meanings of words, but it pays emphasis on their context. In other words, pragmatics is “the study of the use of linguistic signs, words, and sentences, in actual situations.”
Thus, it looks beyond the literal meaning of an utterance or a sentence, considering how the context impacts its meaning to be constructed as well the implied meanings.
Therefore, unlike semantics, pragmatics concern the context of that particular words and how that context impacts their meaning.
For example, think of a situation when you and your friends are planning to give a surprise birthday party to one of your colleagues, and after everything is ready you see the colleague is on the way to the classroom and suddenly one of your friends shout “Candles?”. “Candles?” might indicate that you forgot to put candles on the birthday cake. Therefore, here that single word ‘candles’ convey a lot of meaning to you and your friends except for the colleague who has no idea that you have planned a surprise birthday party for him/her.
This is what pragmatics is about. Unlike semantics, which only concerns the meaning of the words, pragmatics goes a step further by looking at the same word in relation to its context. Thus, pragmatics explains how language users are able to overcome apparent ambiguity since it explains the meaning relies on the manner, time, place, etc. of an utterance.
As the Linguist Jenny Thomas points out, pragmatics considers three basic principles:
- The negotiation of meaning between speaker and listener.
- The context of the utterance.
- The meaning potential of an utterance.
Even though semantics is concerned only with the exact, literal meaning of the words and their interrelations, pragmatics focuses on the inferred meaning the speakers and listeners perceive.
Similarities Between Semantics and Pragmatics
- Both semantics and pragmatics are main branches of linguistics.
- Semantics and pragmatics both basically focus on studying the meanings of words in a language.
Difference Between Semantics and Pragmatics
Semantics is the study of words and their meanings in a language while pragmatics is the study of words and their meaning in a language with concern to their context.
Significance of Words
While semantics focuses mainly on the significance of the meaning of words in a literal sense, pragmatics additionally focuses on the meaning of words according to the context and their inferred meanings as well.
Semantics studies the literal meaning whereas pragmatics studies the intended or the inferred meaning as well.
Linguistics is the scientific study of language; semantics and pragmatics are two basic branches of linguistics. Though both these concern the study of words and their meanings in a language, they are different from each other. Semantics focus on the meanings of words without laying emphasis on their context whereas pragmatics do lay emphasis on the context in addition to studying the meaning of the same words. This is the main difference between semantics and pragmatics.
1.” Semantics.” 2009. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Columbia University Press: New York.
2. “What does semantics study?” All About Linguistics, Available here.
3. “What is pragmatics?” All About Linguistics, Available here.
4. “Semantics.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Aug. 2018, Available here.
5. Thomas, Jenny. An Introduction to Pragmatics. Longman, 1995.
6. “Pragmatics.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Aug. 2018, Available here.
1. “Major levels of linguistic structure” By File:Major levels of linguistic structure.jpg: James J. Thomas and Kristin A. Cook (Ed.)derivative work McSush – File:Major levels of linguistic structure.jpg (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia