Pragmatics in my everyday practice - Meeting and addressing people

Essay, 2009

8 Pages


This short piece of work would intend to show or present my everyday teaching practice from pragmatic points of view. I learned applied linguistics before, or at least my college professors gave it a try to teach me. I always wondered this miraculous linguistics, even if I had found it very hard to master. I am now making a research work on the linguistic differences between American and British English, hence I have been in love with US English since my childhood. Therefore, as my being a language examiner at one of the language examination boards, I am not only collecting pragmatic hints from my teaching practice, but I also would like to show some interesting points form the language exams. Moreover, I would really love to present some dialectical differences, which do inevitably utter pragmatics. For all this I have got to admit that an essay of some short pages could not fulfill the task to present every small bit of pragmatics, heedless of my honest efforts.

If you open a book on pragmatics - whatever it could be – it would start with defining what lies behind this phenomenon. Usually conceived as a branch of semantics concerned with the meaning in certain which they are uttered. In pragmatics, the relationship between signs and interpretants is really important[1]. To make it as clear as possible, the following examples illustrate the point exactly:

“A motorbike is coming”

First, this sentence could only provide us a neutral statement of a moving vehicle, however in a certain context it could stand as a warning and could play a vital role: “Watch out! A motorbike is coming”. In this context, this sentence might save someone's life, who is probably now about to tread onto a zebra or something. Therefore, it is the part of pragmatics conveying and interacting a kind of different meanings, thus triggering out a diverse interpretation. We could change the words in this sentence, and this could lead to a dialectical pragmatics (if there is so – C.V. Morris might kill me if he was still alive):

“Your coach is coming”

This sentence would affect differently in the UK or in the States. A British guy would easily step back and be waiting for a bus to arrive, whereas an American guy would easily be hit by the bus, since he would be waiting for a person (a trainer, or somebody). Imagine how funny this accident would have been. “Watch out. You coach is coming” Hmm, worth pondering about, is it not?

In certain real-life cases, on the other hand, this is not so serious and we only have a laugh at it. It is just like in the joke that I always punch.

In certain places of North America, the word “aunt” is very similarly pronounced to the word “ant” /aent/ and not alike in British /aunt/, hence the joke corresponds really well.

Why is the American kid scared in the zoo? Because he saw an aunt eater. (ant).

Hopefully, that is not an aunt eater animal (I rather wish there were some mother-in-law eaters), however, this joke really interprets how the context (and we can consider familiar background /e.g American or British origins/ to be different contexts as well) would affect the meaning, leading to different misunderstandings. These contextual differences form pragmatics. It means that it is not enough for a text to convey a piece of information (semantics) but the contextual background (the intention of the speakers and the listeners) play as important (if not more) as information transmission.

It would be, however, impossible to list all the fields of pragmatics, all categories and clusters. That would devour a library of books and the usefulness should also be questioned. Therefore, I opted for the following items and would like to place them under a magnifying glass. Names and addresses, titles and and names, and the different versions of politeness principle in my everyday teaching life.


Although English is said to be one of the most polite languages, it is extremely interesting that there are no separate words for formalizing people. Certain other languages have different forms for “you” (French “tu/vous”, German “du/Sie”., Hungarian Te/Ön). These may originally have indicated number (“vous” and “Sie”) used for plural forms, but now show different levels of formality, with “tu” and “du” being more familiar, “vous” and “Sie” more polite. In English this was shown historically by the contrast between “you” and “thou/thee”. These are not really used anymore, though the “thou” form survives in some dialects (like old cockney), while other familiar pronoun forms are “youse” (Liverpool) and “you-all” or “you all gentlemen” (southern USA).

In practice, students want to formalize with third person singular, “Kovács úr, jön velünk együtt haza?” and falsely corresponds to “Mr Smith, i s He coming with us home?”, more

frequently “to home” (like a fossilized error). In German, it is written only with a capital

initial letter, like Sie but this Sie is followed by a plural form. You see, formalizing is not standard thing and it varies in many of the languages.[2] Vice versa to this phenomenon, students are scared of addressing teachers or older people with “Hello” because they assume the it is only a colloquial form of speech, which we all know, is not true. In England, and rather frequently in the USA, it is absolutely common to address any groups of people. “Hello, students. “ like a university professor would greet his students before a lecture. This inevitably conveys to “Greetings, students. “ which is also an acceptable form, however, it would sound rather formal and less life-like. Many of my students were taught of this “hello” formula, however, we could never be careful enough. Students tend to generalize semantic as well as grammatical items (we might list more of thousands of examples here), and this generalization is not avoided in this case either only if we warned them beforehand. But I was not always careful so my students thought this “hello” formula equals to “hi” as well, and they addressed an English gentleman like “Hi, mister”. Not only from a pragmatic point of view it would sound odd, would it not? We all know that English people normally understand but do not like jokes – unless it is a real English joke told by a native one – so you can figure out what the man's reaction sounded (normally you can only force a grin onto the mouth...). I am listing these examples just to warn teachers not to think in a way like in an old-fashioned, conservative, inflexible way[3]. My ars poetica is that we have to teach everything concerning a grammatical or semantic problem. That is why I should have warned my students here not to use “hi” like “hello”.


[1] MATTHEWS PH., Concise Dictionary of Linguistics, OUP, New York, 1991, 290.

[2] Formal addressings are also used to express solidarity or intimacy. Just like in Shakespeare's plays, where it almost always shows the speaker's attitude to status and situation. A king is “your majesty” or “you” but a peasant is “thou”. It may be an insult, as when Tybalt addresses Romeo as “thou” (“Romeo, thou art a villain”; Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 3). Interesting, is it not?

[3] Me and some of my colleagues made out the term ''Granny English”, naming high school lady English teachers, Russian retrained, between 60 and death, interpreting English in an absolutely life-like killing way. They usually stick to 50 years old ideas, and never accept ''gonna, wanna, etc” however frequently they are used everyday. They hate American English, they think American English is the devil itself, never accept “haven't” without “got” and so on. Their pronunciation is more of Hunglish; I could list more features of this teaching style, but this is not the task now.

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Pragmatics in my everyday practice - Meeting and addressing people
University of Debrecen  (Institution of English and American Studies )
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Pragmatics, Meeting
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János Talabér (Author), 2009, Pragmatics in my everyday practice - Meeting and addressing people, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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