Pragmatics and Semantics

Pragmatics and semantics are two branches of linguistics according to (Hassa, 2016),  

“… that are related to the meaning of language, there is a major difference between the two. Knowing the difference between semantics and pragmatics can help clear the misunderstandings and miscommunication in language.”  So, what is the difference between these two branches of linguistics, how is this important to human communication and how can teachers use this information in the classroom?  

What is the Difference between Pragmatics and Semantics? 

While semantics and pragmatics both deal with words and their meaning, pragmatics goes further into the intended meaning that the speaker is trying to convey while semantics is only concerned with what the words mean. According to Szabó (2005), “Semantics is the study of meaning, or more precisely, the study of the relation between linguistic expressions and their meaning.” This means semantics is the study of words and what they mean. Semantics is not concerned with how the writer or speaker is using the words. It is just interested in what the words or phrases mean. According to the article, What is Pragmatics? “Pragmatics studies how language is used by real people in real context, in spoken discourse and written contexts, and is highly influenced by cultural and social contexts.” Pragmatics is still interested in what the words mean as in semantics, but it goes deeper into the context the words are spoken. Pragmatics deals with context while semantics does not.  

Why is Semantic and Pragmatic Interpretation so Important to Human Communication? 

Why are these two areas of linguistics important to human communication? Language is essential in communication whether it be through sign language, brail or another means of communication. Understanding language is important to how we as humans communicate. “Meaning seems at once the most obvious feature of language and the most obscure aspect to study. It is obvious because it is what we use language for–to communicate with each other, to convey.” And therefore, pragmatics and semantics are so important to human communication because it is how we communicate. One needs to know what the words mean, their basic dictionary meaning to be able to speak, write and understand. One then must understand what the speaker is trying to say, the message they are trying to convey to be able communicate effectively. When someone is learning a new language, these two branches of linguistics are important to study. They need to first learn what the dictionary meaning of some words are so they have some vocabulary and then they can work on what the speaker means. Without semantics and pragmatics, we would not be able to communicate.  

How Can Knowledge of Semantics and Pragmatics Inform Your Teaching? 

Now let’s think about our students who have a challenging time with pragmatics. This can be difficult concept for young children, English Language Learners, people with a hearing impairment, and those with Autism. This comes into play in social media where it is difficult to understand the tone in someone’s typing and therefore it is difficult to understand what the person means. Understanding this helps us know that we need to choose our words wisely. Something you type might be innocent, but someone might interpret what you typed differently than what you meant to say. Sarcasm is difficult to detect in chats. It is far easier to understand sarcasm when you can hear what the person is saying and hear the tone in their voice. 

Students who have a hearing impairment may miss the tone when someone speaks. They may rely on sign language, but then again just like typing in a chat or a message, they can miss the tone. Students with Autism and young children have a challenging time understanding social cues. They often do not understand sarcasm and often misinterpret situations.  

How Can Teachers Use This Information to Facilitate Learning in Their Own Classrooms? 

 According to the article, What is Semantics, “ELLs are learning both social and academic language of English. Social language, or playground and everyday speech can take only 1-2 years to develop.”  Teachers can help these students by encouraging students to “explore words, looking at origins of words, connections and similarities of words between languages…” This will help them become better communicators.  

Often, when teaching literature, I ask my students, “What is the author trying to tell us?  What does this sentence mean? What is the speaker trying to convey?”  I have some students who have Autism, and at times we talk about “reading the room”. Which means reading the atmosphere of the room before commenting on something. And by knowing the atmosphere, it will help them understand what the speaker is trying to say or what they mean to say. For example, when my daughter was little, I told her to “Hold her horses.” She left the room and came back holding her My Little Pony’s and said, “Okay mom I am holding my horses.” We all had a big laugh, but then I explained what it meant and why we say it. Years ago, when horses and stagecoaches were the way we traveled, when you wanted someone to slow down you told them to “hold their horses.” At that point they were actually holding real horses, today it is an idiom which means to slow down. When these situations occur, the teacher should explain the significance of the word or the phrase and explain what the speaker means by what they said.  


 Pragmatics and semantics are two branches of linguistics with semantics dealing only with the meaning of words and pragmatics dealing with word meaning and how these words are used. “Knowing the difference between semantics and pragmatics can help clear the misunderstandings and miscommunication in language” (Hassa, 2016).  

Page BreakReferences 

Hassa, (2016 November 16). The Difference Between. Retrieved from 

Ladusaw, W. (n.d.). Meaning (Semantics and Pragmatics). Retrieved from

Szabó, Z.G. (2005 October 18). The Distinction between Semantics and Pragmatics. Retrieved  from  Distinction-between-Semantics-and-Pragmatics-1n5ehuq.pdf. 

What is Pragmatics? (n.d.). Retrieved from                                                             

What is Semantics? (n.d.). Retrieved from                                                         

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