LINGUIST List 24.3672

Wed Sep 18 2013

Review: Pragmatics: Huang (2012)

Editor for this issue: Anja Wanner <>

Date: 31-May-2013
From: Rachele De Felice <>
Subject: The Oxford Dictionary of Pragmatics
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Yan HuangTITLE: The Oxford Dictionary of PragmaticsPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Rachele De Felice, University College London


As the name suggests, this volume is a dictionary devoted entirely topragmatics; more specifically, it contains 2400 entries covering all aspectsof this discipline, from its links to philosophy of language and semantics,through ‘traditional’ topics such as politeness, speech act theory, andutterance interpretation, to newly emerging sub-disciplines such as clinicalpragmatics and historical pragmatics. Within this breadth of topics, there areentries referring to general concepts (e.g. ‘back-channelling’, ‘logophoricmarking’), more specific terms (e.g. ‘honorific’, ‘meronym’), schools ofthought (e.g. ‘functionalism’, ‘neo-Gricean pragmatics’), approaches (e.g.‘ethnography of speaking’, ‘face saving model’), and important figures in thefield (deceased scholars only, e.g. J. L. Austin, P. F. Strawson).As is to be expected, there is plenty of cross-referencing within thedictionary, and in the Preface the author suggests that the “dictionary isalso carefully constructed so that it can be used for systematic browsing, ina 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 thecross-referenced terms in the definition or the suggested entries indicated by‘see also’ to gradually explore the topic of interest. Some entries alsocontain references to further reading, identified by the author as “relevantseminal and more recent work” (p. vii), which is a very helpful starting pointfor research.The Preface also indicates the intended audience of the dictionary to beundergraduate and postgraduate students who are studying linguistics, but donot necessarily have knowledge of pragmatics, as well as researchers inlinguistics 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 ofmeaning.The dictionary entries are preceded by a 19-page introduction which aims toset out the current landscape of the study of pragmatics, acknowledging thatthe boundaries of the discipline are somewhat fuzzy. This includes sections onAnglo-American pragmatics and Continental pragmatics, as well as more specificbranches of pragmatics such as cognitive, computational, acquisitional,societal, intercultural, historical, literary pragmatics, and so on. Inreading this section one is left in no doubt about the wide range of topicsthat fall under this discipline, and the extent to which it interacts withother aspects of linguistics.


Rather than attempting to address the merit of specific entries, thisevaluation will focus on the usability of the dictionary, and its usefulnessas a resource for scholars of pragmatics of any level.This dictionary definitely fills a gap in the literature. As the introductionshows, pragmatics is no longer the ‘waste-basket of linguistics.’ Differentaspects of pragmatics are relevant to a wide range of research both withinlinguistics and in adjacent fields (e.g. artificial intelligence orneuroscience), so having a reference resource which allows the scholar toquickly fill any gaps in their knowledge and engage with the topic isinvaluable. In this respect, it appears more specialised than Cruse's (2006)''A Glossary of Semantics and Pragmatics,'' which is aimed at beginnerstudents of linguistics, and includes many more entries on semantics and fewerreferences to the literature.The Introduction is very useful as an easy way to gain an overview of thefield, 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 differentbranches of pragmatics do include reference to Continental scholars as well.The coverage is impressive and the authors succeeds in his aim of includingentries that refer to both high-level, central pragmatic topics (such asspeech act theory or politeness) and to very specific terms which one mightnot normally encounter (such as ‘performadox’). The definitions themselves aremostly concise, even when the entry under discussion is a large topic; this, Ifeel, is a wise decision as it keeps the dictionary firmly grounded to itspurpose rather than straying into encyclopaedic territory. The reader canalways go into more depth by following up the cross-references.Many entries have illustrative examples, which are very helpful; there areonly 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, notbeing a frequently encountered term, might require further explanation.Another useful feature of the dictionary is the fact that, in most cases, thedefinition makes it clear which branch of pragmatics the term is relevant for(e.g. “subjectification: a term deployed in historical pragmatics for…”), sothe item can be immediately and easily positioned within its wider context.The author should also be commended for adopting a global rather than strictlyAnglo-centric view of the discipline, by including several entries relating tofeatures of languages that are not English or other European ones (e.g.‘logophoric pronoun’ – West African languages, or ‘obviation’ – AmericanIndian languages).My main criticisms of the dictionary relate to issues of presentation andorganisation of the material rather than its content.A first, minor issue in the definitions is the convention to give, for eachscholar mentioned, information about their nationality and/or place of work,e.g. “the Russian-born American linguist Roman Jakobson” or “the Germanphilosopher Hans Kamp”. I didn’t understand why this information is relevantto the understanding of the topic, except perhaps in relation to thedistinctions between Anglo-American and continental pragmatics outlined in theIntroduction, and I feel it makes the entries more cumbersome to read.Another presentation issue regards the occasional inclusion of links toparticular websites which relate to the entry, such as ‘Teaching Pragmatics’and ‘Description of Speech Acts.’ While these are indeed very comprehensiveand useful web resources, there is no indication in the Preface as to thecriteria which lead to the inclusion or otherwise of such links, and thereader is left wondering why these in particular have been chosen rather thanany 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 differentconventions of having, within the definition, both items in boldface and itemsmarked by an asterisk. The asterisk, as the Preface states, points to “relatedentries” (vii). However, one also finds words in bold in the definition, whichsometimes have their own entry, and sometimes don’t. For example, the entryfor ‘inference’ includes a mention of ‘reasoning’ with an asterisk, as a formof 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 isalso a brief description of the terms ‘conclusion’ and ‘premises,’ which aremarked in bold. However, there are no independent entries for these terms, noteven ones which just point back to the entry on 'inference.' How can thereader know to look for ‘conclusion’ within this entry? Similar problemsarise, for example, with the entries for ‘cross-cultural pragmatics’ and‘intercultural pragmatics’ – the latter is defined within the definition ofthe former, but there is no entry for ‘intercultural pragmatics’ at theappropriate point in the dictionary, and a non-expert user would have no wayof knowing that the relevant information could be found under another, relatedentry.This is even more puzzling when we consider that in other cases, terms inbold 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 astumbling block to navigating the dictionary with ease and confidence, as thereader is often left unsure as to the best path to take in exploring thematerial.The author notes that “the style of the dictionary is slightly more technicalthan that of Matthew’s [2007] dictionary” (vii), an assessment with which Iagree. I found some entries, especially those referring to more specialised orless well-known topics, to be quite terse, and therefore perhaps notimmediately accessible to less advanced students. It is suggested thatbrowsing through the volume, following references and cross-references, couldbe “more comfortable” for students than using a conventional textbook (viii).While I agree that the element of self-discovery and the activity of carvingone’s own path through a particular topic is intellectually stimulating andmight give a student a greater sense of ownership of his/her study, I feelthat this dictionary should be used alongside, rather than instead of, atextbook. Textbooks are more likely to contain a greater number of examplesand can afford to break down the explanation of a topic in greater detail,which would prove more helpful to less proficient students. The dictionarycould then support the student when particular terms are encountered that arenot immediately familiar.However, graduate students and researchers in linguistics are definitely anideal audience. For them, this is a book to keep on a nearby shelf, for easyand frequent access, as the wide range of material it covers makes it avaluable 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 researchinterests also focus on pragmatics and corpus linguistics, and in particularon bringing the two fields together in corpus pragmatics and the study ofspeech acts.

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