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If you want to know what a particular human activity is all about, you may start asking questions like: ‘What are the rules of baseballs?’ or ‘What is cricket like? But pretty soon you will get to the point where you want to figure out what these sports enthusiasts actually are doing out there in the field. Similarly, if you want to know what a particular religion is all about, you are of course entitled to ask what its beliefs are; but you will be more interested in, and enlightened by the practices that are said to be characteristic of such a religion.
We could apply this line of thought to the “young” science of pragmatics. Ask any pragmatician what pragmatics is all about, and he/she will tell you that it is a science that has to do with language and its users, or some such thing. But if you want to know what pragmatics really stands for, you must try and find out how the game is played, what pragmaticians do for a living and how they are different from the people active in other related branches of language studies such as syntax or semantics. So the question is ‘What could be called a typical pragmatic look at matters of language?’
Here is an example of how pragmatics works. The Chicago cultural weekly Reader had an advertisement in its 21 August, 1992 issue for a downtown cocktail lounge ‘Sweet Alice’. The ad carried the text:
I brought some sushi home and cooked it, and it wasn’t bad at all.
Now what are you going to make of this? Of course, this sentence is a joke: everybody knows that sushi is eaten raw, and that you are not supposed to cook it. Cooking sushi may strike someone as funny or stupid or outrageous, depending on one’s point of view. In an informal way, we could say that the sentence above makes no sense. And a linguist might want to add that, since everybody knows that sushi is defined as being eaten raw, a sentence such as the above is wrong in the same way as are sentences of the type ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ which made a certain American linguist famous in the early sixties. When asked about the odd choice of wording in the advertisement quoted above, the linguist might go on to say that the sentence is semantically wrong; it does not make sense because the semantics of one its parts (the sushi) contradicts the semantics of another part (the cooking). So far, so good. But, one could ask, why use such a silly sentence in an advertisement for a cocktail bar?
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