Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics  (Curtis Brown)

This page borrows from the Introduction to A. P. Martinich, ed., The Philosophy of Language, Third Edition (Oxford University Press, 1996).

'Syntax' is more or less synonymous with 'grammar', though philosophers often use the term more broadly to refer to any characteristics of a sentence that don't involve semantics.  Thus, while a linguist would distinguish between phonology and syntax, philosophers may treat phonology (and orthography) as "syntactic".

Semantics is the study of the meanings of linguistic expressions (as opposed to their sound, spelling, etc.).  Of course, 'meaning' is a notoriously vague and ambiguous term; many different kinds of meaning are part of semantics.  Among the semantic notions we will make use of are these:

Pragmatics has to do with context-dependent features of language.  There are at least two rather different varieties of pragmatic notions.  

  1. The term 'semantics' tends to be restricted to properties of sentences that remain constant as long as the same language is being spoken, while pragmatic values vary from context to context.  For instance, the expression 'local fauna' has the same meaning regardless of when I use it, but its extension varies from one context to another, so we may say that the extension of 'local fauna' is pragmatically determined.  (By contrast, the extension of 'dog' does not vary from one context of use to another.)

  2. Pragmatics also includes things people can do with words or sentences that go beyond the literal meaning of the expressions involved.  For instance, the sentence "he always shows up for class on time" means exactly what it says.   But consider the following context of use:  someone asks me, "is so-and-so a good student?" and, after a long pause, I utter the sentence above.   In this context, I am very likely using the sentence to convey the information that the student really is not all that good, even though I have not literally said this.   One way to put the difference is to say that the literal meaning of the sentence is semantically encoded by the sentence, while the information that the student is not very good is instead pragmatically imparted (cf. Nathan Salmon, Frege's Puzzle).

One way to see the difference between syntax, semantics, and pragmatics is to think about various kinds of linguistic deviance.  A sentence can be pragmatically deviant without being semantically or syntactically deviant, and it can be semantically deviant without being syntactically deviant.  Consider the following examples: