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Review of  Introduction to Pragmatics

Reviewer: Catharine M Welch
Book Title: Introduction to Pragmatics
Book Author: Betty J. Birner
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 24.2782

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Betty Birner’s ‘An Introduction to Pragmatics’ is an intriguing introductory pragmatics textbook written for an intended audience of graduate students or advanced undergraduate students. The text consists of ten chapters, with some chapters focusing on more traditional pragmatic themes, such as Gricean theory, speech acts, and deixis, while other chapters explore newer directions, such as Neo-Gricean Theory, Relevance Theory, and Discourse Representation Theory. Each chapter concludes with an “Exercises and Discussion Questions” section, which allows students to practice new skills acquired from the reading and/or to think critically about the topics presented in the chapter.

Birner’s text distinguishes itself from other introductory pragmatics textbooks by contextualizing pragmatics within the broader field of linguistics, and specifically, by focusing heavily on the boundary between semantics and pragmatics. Since is it assumed that the reader possesses no previous knowledge of semantics or pragmatics (or even linguistics), the book addresses and assesses the relationship between these two domains in such a way that the reader simultaneously acquires knowledge about both pragmatics and semantics. In the opening chapter, Birner presents possible ways that the semantic/pragmatic boundary could be drawn and then continually revisits and reassesses the boundary as various pragmatic topics and theories are introduced in subsequent chapters. Almost every chapter, at some point, circles back around to this discussion. The concluding chapter reviews the various ways that the boundary can be drawn and why various researchers might prefer one method over another, but no final dividing line is established.

Chapter 1: Defining Pragmatics

The first chapter of Birner’s textbook helps the reader to understand where pragmatics fits within the larger field of linguistics and, specifically, how to delimit the sometimes-fuzzy boundary between semantics and pragmatics. As mentioned above, this motif of distinguishing pragmatics from semantics is a recurring theme throughout the text and provides the basic lens through which the book is written. This discussion begins by establishing the domain of semantics with a detailed explanation of lexical semantics, sentential semantics, and truth conditions. Birner then examines the domain of pragmatics and defines significant terms such as ‘nonnatural meaning,’ ‘speaker meaning,’ and ‘referent.’ Two options for drawing the boundary between pragmatics and semantics are given, one based on context-dependence and the other on truth-conditional meaning. Birner concludes the chapter by explaining how these perspectives are often wrongfully equated, resulting in a theoretical oversimplification that erroneously positions semantics as an input to pragmatics. She then gives linguistic examples that do not readily lend themselves to such a model.

Chapter 1 also includes a small discussion on common methodologies used in pragmatics research and contains a comparison of corpus-based approaches to more traditional approaches, such as intuition, elicitation, and observation.

Chapter 2: Gricean Implicature

The second chapter introduces the Gricean model of meaning and includes an explanation of the ‘Cooperative Principle,’ a description of each of the four maxims and their corresponding submaxims, and a discussion of a speaker’s options of adhering, violating, flouting, or opting out of the maxims. Birner then compares conversational and conventional implicature and their corresponding tests. The chapter concludes by stating that Gricean theory places semantics in the realm of “what is said” and pragmatics in the realm of “what is implicated” (p. 74) by way of truth conditionality, but indicates that some of the newer theories of meaning (covered in the following chapter) will differ on this point.

Chapter 3: Later Approaches to Implicature

The third chapter focuses on Neo-Gricean Theory and Relevance Theory—the two pragmatic theories that have developed since Grice’s theory (covered in Chapter 2). Neo-Gricean Theory is presented both through the viewpoint of Horn and the Q/R model and through Levinson’s Q/I/M model. Birner compares and contrasts these viewpoints to each other as well as to Grice’s original formulation, ultimately making a case for why both Horn’s and Levinson’s models are considered to follow the tradition of the Gricean approach to negotiated meaning even though they seek to reorganize and/or conflate his maxims. Birner then shifts the focus to Relevance Theory, in which she explicates how it departs significantly from Gricean and Neo-Gricean thought by eliminating maxims altogether. The theory of relevance as a basic function of human cognition is detailed, with an ensuing discussion of explicature as it relates to truth-conditional meaning. At this point, Birner segues the conversation back toward the overarching question of how to demarcate the semantic/pragmatic boundary, indicating that in both Neo-Gricean Theory and Relevance Theory, the boundary is largely determined by the theory’s approach to truth-conditions.

Chapter 4: Reference

In the next chapter, Birner leaves behind the discussion of implicature from Chapters 2 and 3 and revisits some of the concepts from the first chapter of the book regarding the distinction between sense and reference. She then transitions into a discussion on deixis, wherein four types are explored—temporal, personal, spatial, and discourse. A lengthy section on definiteness and indefiniteness of noun phrases (NPs) follows, presenting various schools of thought as to what definiteness marks. While Birner considers the merits of uniqueness, individuality, and familiarity, she ultimately concludes that none of these is fully explanatory and that more research is needed in this area. The concept of anaphora is presented through a syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic point of view. The chapter concludes with a critical look at referential and attributive uses of definite descriptions, arguing that all uses—whether referential or attributive—have discourse-model referents, and thus, are, in fact, referential in nature.

Chapter 5: Presupposition

Drawing on her discussion in Chapter 4 of the definite article (whose use seems to assume, or presuppose, the existence of a referent), Birner turns the conversation in the fifth chapter toward presupposition. While much of the discussion centers on whether presupposition is a semantic or pragmatic phenomenon, Birner notes that this issue does not directly feed into the problem of the semantic/pragmatic boundary since the argument here is based on the definition of ‘presupposition’ itself. Birner first looks at presupposition from a purely semantic point of view, providing evidence via defeasibility of presupposed information as to why this perspective comes up short. She then looks at the topic from the pragmatic viewpoint—that presuppositions are part of the common ground of speaker and hearer in discourse—but also finds counterevidence against this perspective vis-à-vis accommodation of presupposed information. She then brings the conversation back to the issue of definiteness, wrapping things up with a brief look at how definiteness, presupposition, and accommodation are interrelated.

Chapter 6: Speech Acts

Birner begins the sixth chapter by explaining why Speech Act Theory is planted squarely within the field of pragmatics due to its heavy emphasis on speaker intention and hearer understanding. Yet, she goes on to say that the theory developed out of a desire to demarcate the semantic/pragmatic boundary. She then defines ‘performatives,’ both implicit and explicit, and highlights the problems that arise when pairing the Performative Hypothesis against truth-conditional semantics. Having given evidence as to why the Performative Hypothesis was abandoned, Birner begins laying the groundwork for an approach to speech acts that closely follows Austin (1962). She defines felicity conditions, locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts, and direct and indirect speech acts. A mention of Politeness Theory and positive and negative face follows. She ends with a brief remark on joint acts, observing that some speech acts cannot be considered successful without “uptake” by the hearer.

Chapter 7: Information Structure

Returning to the concept of truth-conditional meaning, Birner’s seventh chapter reminds the reader that previous chapters have examined word- and discourse-level meaning and have determined that, in some cases, the meanings are not influenced by truth conditions, and therefore, are more pragmatic than semantic. She then turns to the question of non-truth-conditional meaning on the sentence level and considers various instances of sentences not affected by truth conditions. Non-canonical word order issues, including preposing, postposing, and argument reversal (as seen through inversion and passivization), are explored, along with their corresponding felicity conditions. Much of this discussion questions whether individual constituents are hearer-old or -new, or if they are discourse-old or -new, either explicitly or inferentially.

Chapter 8: Inferential Relations

The eighth chapter takes a closer examination at how inferences are made and categorized within discourse. Birner acknowledges that inferences seem obvious because they are so often intuited, but suggests that they are, in fact, predictive and worthy of study. She revisits the non-canonical word order examples from Chapter 7, but this time, through the lens of inferential relationships, both at the constituent and propositional levels. Strength and type of inference are discussed at the constituent level as a means to roughing out a preliminary taxonomy of inferential relations, although Birner admits that much research still needs to be done in this area. She closes the chapter with a look at inference on the propositional level, in which she reviews the concept of discourse coherence and examines its effects on syntactic constructions.

Chapter 9: Dynamic Semantics and the Representation of Discourse

As Birner draws the book to a close, she hones in on the interaction between semantics and pragmatics, whose relationship is at the heart of Dynamic Semantics. Birner defines ‘Dynamic Semantics’ as various semantic accounts that look toward pragmatic issues and “in essence create a mechanism for allowing the prior linguistic context to affect the semantics of the current sentence” (p. 272). One such account—Discourse Representation Theory (DRT)—is explained in detail (albeit simplified from its current iteration for didactic purposes), demonstrating to the reader what a dynamic model can and cannot do, and how the two domains can relate to each other in such a model. Because DRT challenges the idea that truth conditions necessarily delineate the domains of pragmatics and semantics, Birner uses this aspect of DRT as a jumping off point to resume the conversation regarding the semantic/pragmatic boundary. She acknowledges that DRT highlights the fact that pragmatics sometimes slips into the semantics realm and vice versa. At the same time, she points out that, despite this “grey area” at the intersection of the two domains, many facets remain decidedly in one camp or the other.

Chapter 10: Conclusion

In the final chapter, Birner succinctly but poignantly elucidates the value in attempting to delimit the domains of pragmatics and semantics, despite the fact that no final answer on the matter is given. She argues against several commonly held beliefs about pragmatics—1) that it is simply a space to discuss topics that do not fit neatly into the realm of semantics (however, ‘semantics’ is defined), 2) that semantics and pragmatics are sequentially ordered, with pragmatics being considered only after semantic input has been processed, and 3) the idea that certain phenomena that have traditionally been considered pragmatic (e.g. pronoun resolution) are, in fact, semantic in nature. These issues bring to light the tension (or harmony, depending on your perspective, Birner says) between the two domains and the need to further explore the scopes of these two fields. In fact, she encourages readers to decide for themselves the value of asking the question in the first place and suggests that perhaps the fact that no definitive answer is available will inspire further research in this area. She bolsters her argument by providing a number of contexts (e.g. legal, interpersonal miscommunication, technology, and advertising) where the semantic/pragmatic boundary has very tangible, real-world applications. She closes the book with a very brief look at where pragmatics touches other subfields of linguistics (i.e. phonology and syntax), but in the end, circles back around to semantics.


Overall, Birner did an excellent job of making explicit her goals in writing ‘Introduction to Pragmatics’ and of accomplishing the task she set out to do—mainly, to provide an introductory look at pragmatics concepts while simultaneously assessing and challenging the boundaries of the subfield. From the start, Birner makes it clear that she will focus heavily on the semantic/pragmatic border, and indeed, this theme was a thread that tied the entire text together. This recurring subtext throughout the book made for a cohesive final product—one that was able to jump seamlessly from deixis to implicature to Relevance Theory to anaphora, all the while building an argument for why these items fit into the realm of pragmatics, or in some cases, why they challenge previously held notions of how to define pragmatics. In some ways, however, Birner sticks too closely to this theme to the exclusion of other boundary issues within pragmatics. For example, while Levinson’s oft-used ‘Pragmatics’ (1983) textbook makes it a point to detail the overlap between the domains of pragmatics and sociolinguistics, Birner’s text does not ever mention sociolinguistics. Even in her wrap-up section in the final chapter, where she discusses how pragmatics touches other previously unmentioned subdisciplines, only phonology and syntax are highlighted. While certainly it could be argued that the sociolinguistic/pragmatic boundary did not fall within the scope of the book, it was surprising to not see it mentioned at all since students often question the relationship between these two subfields.

Because of its emphasis on more recent research and its overarching goal of constructing a theory of meaning, this book achieves success and relevancy in ways where other texts fall short. Birner does an exceptional job of highlighting problematic or preliminary research areas and of pointing out where additional study is needed. This text goes beyond simply reviewing topics and theories in pragmatics and asks the reader to engage in critical thinking about these topics, with the hopes that the readers themselves will be inspired to join the conversation through their own research. In terms of reader accessibility, the book is appropriately paced and presented for a graduate-level student. While Birner states that the book is intended for even those with little to no linguistic background, I would hesitate to ask a true linguistic novice to tackle this text. There is no way to use this book in a classroom without simultaneously having a continual exchange about the semantic/pragmatic boundary since it’s so interwoven into the text. Implicit in this discussion is an extended conversation of how to construct a theory of meaning and how pragmatics fits into broader linguistic theory. Being able to think on this “big-picture” level could be a challenge for those who don’t have a linguistic knowledge base to draw from, nor a grasp of the field as a whole.

The text is logically sequenced, with many of the chapters segueing nicely into the next. I actually found the final chapter—which provided a detailed rationale of why and how to approach the semantic/pragmatic boundary and real-world applications thereof— to be the most captivating. Although this is meant to be a wrap-up of previous findings, in some ways, I believe the book would grab students’ attentions more if this information were presented at the beginning instead, as it helps give some justification as to why the boundary conversation is important and necessary in the first place and how it concretely connects to issues in our everyday world. This point aside, the book does indeed make a compelling case for why pragmatists and semanticists alike should give thoughtful consideration to the boundary between their two domains.


Austin, J.L. (1962). How to Do Thing With Words. Clarendon Press.

Levinson, S.C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge University Press.
Catharine Welch, Ph.D., enjoys teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in the linguistics department at the University of Texas at Arlington in Arlington, TX. Her areas of interest include pragmatics, sociolinguistics, educational linguistics, and Spanish.

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