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LINGUIST List 24.3672

Wed Sep 18 2013

Review: Pragmatics: Huang (2012)

Editor for this issue: Anja Wanner <anjalinguistlist.org>

Date: 31-May-2013
From: Rachele De Felice <rachele.defelicegmail.com>
Subject: The Oxford Dictionary of Pragmatics
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-4987.html

AUTHOR: Yan Huang
TITLE: The Oxford Dictionary of Pragmatics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Rachele De Felice, University College London


As the name suggests, this volume is a dictionary devoted entirely to
pragmatics; more specifically, it contains 2400 entries covering all aspects
of this discipline, from its links to philosophy of language and semantics,
through ‘traditional’ topics such as politeness, speech act theory, and
utterance interpretation, to newly emerging sub-disciplines such as clinical
pragmatics and historical pragmatics. Within this breadth of topics, there are
entries referring to general concepts (e.g. ‘back-channelling’, ‘logophoric
marking’), more specific terms (e.g. ‘honorific’, ‘meronym’), schools of
thought (e.g. ‘functionalism’, ‘neo-Gricean pragmatics’), approaches (e.g.
‘ethnography of speaking’, ‘face saving model’), and important figures in the
field (deceased scholars only, e.g. J. L. Austin, P. F. Strawson).
As is to be expected, there is plenty of cross-referencing within the
dictionary, and in the Preface the author suggests that the “dictionary is
also carefully constructed so that it can be used for systematic browsing, in
a way that is increasingly familiar from the use of browsers on the internet”
(p. vii). Indeed, starting from almost any entry, the reader can follow the
cross-referenced terms in the definition or the suggested entries indicated by
‘see also’ to gradually explore the topic of interest. Some entries also
contain references to further reading, identified by the author as “relevant
seminal and more recent work” (p. vii), which is a very helpful starting point
for research.
The Preface also indicates the intended audience of the dictionary to be
undergraduate and postgraduate students who are studying linguistics, but do
not necessarily have knowledge of pragmatics, as well as researchers in
linguistics and other more or less cognate fields such as interaction,
anthropology, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience,
and more generally those with an interest in language and the study of
The dictionary entries are preceded by a 19-page introduction which aims to
set out the current landscape of the study of pragmatics, acknowledging that
the boundaries of the discipline are somewhat fuzzy. This includes sections on
Anglo-American pragmatics and Continental pragmatics, as well as more specific
branches of pragmatics such as cognitive, computational, acquisitional,
societal, intercultural, historical, literary pragmatics, and so on. In
reading this section one is left in no doubt about the wide range of topics
that fall under this discipline, and the extent to which it interacts with
other aspects of linguistics.


Rather than attempting to address the merit of specific entries, this
evaluation will focus on the usability of the dictionary, and its usefulness
as a resource for scholars of pragmatics of any level.
This dictionary definitely fills a gap in the literature. As the introduction
shows, pragmatics is no longer the ‘waste-basket of linguistics.’ Different
aspects of pragmatics are relevant to a wide range of research both within
linguistics and in adjacent fields (e.g. artificial intelligence or
neuroscience), so having a reference resource which allows the scholar to
quickly fill any gaps in their knowledge and engage with the topic is
invaluable. In this respect, it appears more specialised than Cruse's (2006)
''A Glossary of Semantics and Pragmatics,'' which is aimed at beginner
students of linguistics, and includes many more entries on semantics and fewer
references to the literature.
The Introduction is very useful as an easy way to gain an overview of the
field, though it is interesting to note that the ‘Continental pragmatics’
section is given only one page as opposed to the ‘Anglo-American pragmatics’
section’s seven; on the other hand, the – longer – sections on the different
branches of pragmatics do include reference to Continental scholars as well.
The coverage is impressive and the authors succeeds in his aim of including
entries that refer to both high-level, central pragmatic topics (such as
speech act theory or politeness) and to very specific terms which one might
not normally encounter (such as ‘performadox’). The definitions themselves are
mostly concise, even when the entry under discussion is a large topic; this, I
feel, is a wise decision as it keeps the dictionary firmly grounded to its
purpose rather than straying into encyclopaedic territory. The reader can
always go into more depth by following up the cross-references.
Many entries have illustrative examples, which are very helpful; there are
only a handful of cases where I felt an example would have been beneficial,
but was lacking. One such instance is the entry for ‘quessertion’, which, not
being a frequently encountered term, might require further explanation.
Another useful feature of the dictionary is the fact that, in most cases, the
definition makes it clear which branch of pragmatics the term is relevant for
(e.g. “subjectification: a term deployed in historical pragmatics for…”), so
the item can be immediately and easily positioned within its wider context.
The author should also be commended for adopting a global rather than strictly
Anglo-centric view of the discipline, by including several entries relating to
features of languages that are not English or other European ones (e.g.
‘logophoric pronoun’ – West African languages, or ‘obviation’ – American
Indian languages).
My main criticisms of the dictionary relate to issues of presentation and
organisation of the material rather than its content.
A first, minor issue in the definitions is the convention to give, for each
scholar mentioned, information about their nationality and/or place of work,
e.g. “the Russian-born American linguist Roman Jakobson” or “the German
philosopher Hans Kamp”. I didn’t understand why this information is relevant
to the understanding of the topic, except perhaps in relation to the
distinctions between Anglo-American and continental pragmatics outlined in the
Introduction, and I feel it makes the entries more cumbersome to read.
Another presentation issue regards the occasional inclusion of links to
particular websites which relate to the entry, such as ‘Teaching Pragmatics’
and ‘Description of Speech Acts.’ While these are indeed very comprehensive
and useful web resources, there is no indication in the Preface as to the
criteria which lead to the inclusion or otherwise of such links, and the
reader is left wondering why these in particular have been chosen rather than
any other ones.
A perhaps more serious issue regards the system of cross-referencing adopted,
which was not immediately easy to navigate for me, in particular the different
conventions of having, within the definition, both items in boldface and items
marked by an asterisk. The asterisk, as the Preface states, points to “related
entries” (vii). However, one also finds words in bold in the definition, which
sometimes have their own entry, and sometimes don’t. For example, the entry
for ‘inference’ includes a mention of ‘reasoning’ with an asterisk, as a form
of cross-reference, but there are also mentions of 'abduction,' 'deduction,'
'entailment,' 'presupposition,' and other terms, which have no marking at all,
despite all having their own entries in the dictionary. Furthermore, there is
also a brief description of the terms ‘conclusion’ and ‘premises,’ which are
marked in bold. However, there are no independent entries for these terms, not
even ones which just point back to the entry on 'inference.' How can the
reader know to look for ‘conclusion’ within this entry? Similar problems
arise, for example, with the entries for ‘cross-cultural pragmatics’ and
‘intercultural pragmatics’ – the latter is defined within the definition of
the former, but there is no entry for ‘intercultural pragmatics’ at the
appropriate point in the dictionary, and a non-expert user would have no way
of knowing that the relevant information could be found under another, related
This is even more puzzling when we consider that in other cases, terms in
bold within a definition do appear with their own entry, for example the term
‘intentional account’ in the definition of ‘informational account.’ For me,
this unpredictability in how different entries are linked to each other is a
stumbling block to navigating the dictionary with ease and confidence, as the
reader is often left unsure as to the best path to take in exploring the
The author notes that “the style of the dictionary is slightly more technical
than that of Matthew’s [2007] dictionary” (vii), an assessment with which I
agree. I found some entries, especially those referring to more specialised or
less well-known topics, to be quite terse, and therefore perhaps not
immediately accessible to less advanced students. It is suggested that
browsing through the volume, following references and cross-references, could
be “more comfortable” for students than using a conventional textbook (viii).
While I agree that the element of self-discovery and the activity of carving
one’s own path through a particular topic is intellectually stimulating and
might give a student a greater sense of ownership of his/her study, I feel
that this dictionary should be used alongside, rather than instead of, a
textbook. Textbooks are more likely to contain a greater number of examples
and can afford to break down the explanation of a topic in greater detail,
which would prove more helpful to less proficient students. The dictionary
could then support the student when particular terms are encountered that are
not immediately familiar.
However, graduate students and researchers in linguistics are definitely an
ideal audience. For them, this is a book to keep on a nearby shelf, for easy
and frequent access, as the wide range of material it covers makes it a
valuable resource that will be referred to again and again.


Cruse, Alan. 2006. A Glossary of Semantics and Pragmatics. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.

Matthews, P.H. 2007. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.


Rachele De Felice is a teaching fellow at the Department of English,
University College London, where she teaches pragmatics, corpus linguistics,
and other aspects of language in use to Master’s students. Her research
interests also focus on pragmatics and corpus linguistics, and in particular
on bringing the two fields together in corpus pragmatics and the study of
speech acts.
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