LINGUIST List 26.2563

Wed May 20 2015

Review: Cog Sci; Discourse; Lang Acq; Ling Theories; Pragmatics: Ifantidou (2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 15-Dec-2014
From: Adam Gargani <>
Subject: Pragmatic Competence and Relevance
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Elly Ifantidou
TITLE: Pragmatic Competence and Relevance
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 245
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Adam Gargani, (personal interest - not currently working at a university)

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Pragmatic Competence and Relevance by Elly Ifantidou (hereafter I) is a
monograph in the Pragmatics and Beyond series (John Benjamins), which develops
a framework for empirical work on pragmatic development in learners of English
as a foreign language (EFL), is informed by relevance theory (RT), and reports
on the author's own research on the pragmatic competence of her students. The
latter will surely provide a basis for all future L2 pragmatic research from
an RT perspective. All page references refer to this monograph unless
otherwise stated. I rejects definitions of pragmatic competence in terms of a
body of knowledge of appropriate use, viewing it instead as a complex suite of
abilities that language users bring to the task of understanding utterances. I
approaches pragmatic competence as “a type of cognitive performance” (page 1)
in line with other RT work (e.g. Carston 2002, 11), and provides a strong case
for the utility of RT concepts in explaining L2 pragmatic development. I’s own
proposals for how best to characterise pragmatic competence (see below) are
certainly worthy of further theoretical and empirical investigation. The
primary audience of this monograph will be researchers in L2 pragmatics and
EFL practitioners who wish to inform their teaching and syllabus design in
light of pragmatic theory.


In Chapter 1, I outlines the independence of language and communication as a
basis for her later discussion of pragmatic meaning and as groundwork for her
discussion of RT. I makes the important observation that much of what RT
considers pragmatic is subsumed under 'grammar' by theorists of language
learning (pages 18f). I confronts the conflation of pragmatics with
communication, outlining its potential limitations for researchers in EFL and
communicative impairment. I attempts to avoid two potential pitfalls in
experimental investigation of pragmatic competence (due to Cummings 2009),
namely treating non-verbal behaviours as pragmatic, and attributing
communicative intentions where none exist, by focussing only on those strongly
communicated assumptions which form part of 'plausible' interpretations (pages

In Chapter 2, I outlines systemic functional grammar (SF) approaches to L2
pragmatics and emphasises that SF research has not provided empirical evidence
that putative situational or functional components of individuals' knowledge
of language are either psychologically real or explanatory (page 33). The
analyses which linguists give of how discourse is understood can privilege a
single interpretation which an utterance may justify, but does not guarantee.
I also proposes integrating some SF work on genre theory into an RT framework.
Table 1 on page 39 provides a very clear summary of the goals and assessment
procedures of 16 items from the research literature on foreign- and
second-language learning tuition and the effects of instruction on topics in

I also outlines in Chapter 2 how construction grammar (CG) approaches
routinized elements of pragmatic understanding. CG views grammatical
constructions as pairings of forms and meanings (page 55), and I approves of
some such analyses while pointing to evidence that mapping grammatical forms
onto situations L2 expressions occur in is of limited value for learners and
can be de-motivating for them (page 57).

Chapter 3 focuses on a key issue for I's methodology, namely the role that
genre plays in pragmatic competence, with a particular focus on how it can be
utilised in L2 pragmatic research. To this end she explores the role genre
plays in the frameworks explored in Chapter 2, but does not confront directly
the question of whether genres are cognitively real from an RT perspective. I
argues that knowledge of genre does not play a necessary role in
communication, but because genre has been approached from a range of
theoretical perspectives it can also provide insights into the development of
L2 pragmatic competence from an RT perspective.

In Chapter 4, I discusses a number of aspects of the RT account of utterance
understanding which are pertinent to EFL research, including the role of
(individual, mentally represented) context in utterance understanding. I
attempts to incorporate conventional aspects of pragmatic meaning in terms of
lexicalised conceptual or procedural markers as evidence of pragmatic
competence in learners' written output. I also develops an RT-informed view of
inter-personal context, conceived of as generalizable features of texts which
are usually investigated in the EFL research literature as culture-specific

In Chapter 5, I gives an overview of the relationship between exposure, L2
development and pragmatic competence in the research literature, and gives
some limitations of existing work on speech acts in interlanguage pragmatics.
Her main aim in this chapter is to characterise pragmatic competence in terms
of (a) linguistic awareness (the ability to identify relevant indexes of
pragmatic meaning); (b) pragmatic awareness (the ability to retrieve relevant
pragmatic effects); and (c) metapragmatic awareness (the ability to explicate
the link between lexical indexes and pragmatic effects achieved). I designed
her teaching interventions and assessment of learners in order to test
pragmatic awareness by means of a genre conversion task and metapragmatic
awareness by means of a metapragmatic analysis task.

In Chapter 6, I gives an account of an experiment on pragmatic competence
conducted with EFL learners which attempts to provide evidence of developing
pragmatic competence from learners' understanding of
conventional/genre-specific markers and pragmatic/inferential markers (which
include figurative utterances), and to demonstrate that explicit instruction
can positively influence developing L2 pragmatic competence. I emphasises that
results in previously published empirical work on pragmatic instruction are
ambivalent and studies on implicature are rare. Chapter 7 provides a summary
of I's conclusions and proposes avenues for further research.


This monograph will be essential reading for RT researchers in the area of L2
pragmatics, and should be of interest to those investigating this phenomenon
from competing theoretical perspectives. However, there are a number of flaws
with the theoretical and empirical aspects of this research which may be
misleading to readers and threaten the reliability of I's findings.

I makes some mistakes in her presentation of RT in Chapter 4. For instance,
'ostensive' and 'inferential' are not speaker- and hearer-focused properties
of communication, but inherent to the definition of communication in RT, and
ostensive stimuli are not 'designed' to be worthy of an addressee's attention,
rather RT claims that the hearer must treat them as if they were (page 106).

I relates the RT theory of optimal relevance to her notion of plausible
interpretations (page 107), but there are significant problems with I’s use of
the latter notion, which relies heavily upon certain lexical items
‘triggering’ a particular attitude to a text or its author, or triggering some
other approach to interpreting a text. However, according to RT, 'linguistic
indexes' (words) do not demand a particular interpretation, but merely direct
the hearer towards an interpretation by either: (i) providing evidence for it
(in the case of conceptual content and the contextual assumptions that
concepts provide access to); or (ii) directing how relevance will be achieved
(in the case of procedural items).

According to RT, communication always takes place at a risk of
misunderstanding (e.g. Sperber and Wilson 2002/2012, 262). This
characterisation of communicative success is extremely difficult to reconcile
with the pedagogical demands of language teaching (and language teaching
research). I's notion of 'plausible interpretations' may provide a response to
such concerns, but I does not specify in enough detail how such
interpretations are to be judged as plausible or not. A better approach might
be to rely upon native speaker intuitions for what is a plausible
interpretation and evaluate successful L2 pragmatic development in terms of
the similarity of L2 learner interpretations to those of native speakers.

I claims that the notion of epistemic vigilance (Sperber et al, 2010) can help
us explore how learners' pragmatic competence develops. However, instead of
adopting the RT view of stages of developing pragmatic understanding (e.g.
Wilson 2000/2012, §11.3) and relating this to pragmatic development, I infers
from the notion of epistemic vigilance that learners are aware of the
potential of being misinformed. It is not made clear how this relates to
figurative language use, or how learners’ use of figurative language provides
evidence of highly-developed strategies of epistemic vigilance.

I approaches figurative utterances as triggering certain interpretations of
the text, and can therefore be investigated as essentially rhetorical,
persuasive phenomena (e.g. page 94). RT accounts of metaphor and irony are
highly-developed (e.g. Carston 2010 on metaphor; Wilson and Sperber 2012 on
irony), but they do not feature heavily in this monograph nor, so it seems, in
I's experimental design. One crucial aspect of RT approaches to figurative
meaning which is absent from the monograph is the RT account of poetic effects
(Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995, 217; Pilkington 2000. The latter work is not
cited). Surprisingly, I makes little reference to weak implicature at all (see
page 25 and footnote 12; page 36; page 210).

Creative figurative language use is particularly amenable to an analysis in
terms of poetic effects, and it is precisely the non-conventional, subjective
interpretations of metaphor, for instance, which are typical of sophisticated
language users (although compare the suggestion for further research along
these lines on page 199). It is not clear how I evaluated learners'
understanding of non-conventional figurative utterances, but it has been
argued in the RT literature that the most conventionalised metaphorical
utterances make least demand on the inferential abilities of hearers (e.g.
Vega Moreno 2007, Carston 2010). I also appears to be using a definition of
irony which does not coincide with that of current RT work in the area. In
discussing example (68j) on page 178, for instance, I gives as ironic an
utterance which is not ironic according to current RT accounts of the
phenomenon (e.g. Wilson and Sperber 2012).

With regard to I's approach to genre, one could argue that, rather than
command of genre providing evidence of high pragmatic competence, in fact I
has provided evidence against the utility of genre as a theoretical construct
within an RT framework at all. I proposes that certain linguistic features
(she mentions here evidentials, discourse connectives, and pronouns) “trigger”
certain interpretations (page 66). I does not clarify, however, what kind of
'triggering' she has in mind. If she means, for instance, that these items
conventionally implicate certain assumptions, this is difficult to reconcile
with RT (for the inapplicability of conventional implication in RT, see
Blakemore 2002). I's discussion of the use of passives as 'triggering'
implications about agency (e.g. page 88, citing Ifantidou 2011, 23) is
particularly problematic (see e.g. Pullum 2014). I's approach to genre, in
terms of “linguistic indexes guiding the reader into pragmatic inferences”
(page 67), is not integrated into an RT framework entirely convincingly.
Moreover, I herself attacks the utility of associating linguistic markers with
specific genres in page 89, note 11.

There are also flaws with I's experimental design as reported in this
monograph which threaten the validity of her conclusion that explicit
instruction can facilitate L2 pragmatic competence. I does not give a full
account of what was taught in the relevant courses, nor a full account of what
questions were asked in the assessment. The sample student metapragmatic
analyses given as examples (56a-b) (pages 137f) do not seem particularly
focussed on either optimal relevance or epistemic vigilance, even though I
sees these concepts from RT as constituting the core of her characterisation
of pragmatic competence (e.g. page 124). In I's discussion of certain naming
conventions, a phenomenon which formed part of what was taught to some of the
experimental groups, the phrase ‘Newcastle poet Tony Harrison’ does not, as I
claims, 'suggest' that the poet is not internationally known (Reah, 1998, 57,
59, which I cites, merely states that this title “does not recognise” the
poet's international renown) (page 138).

Although I controls for language proficiency, the content of the courses for
either control or experimental groups is not given, it is not clear how
representative the individual groups are, and the control and experimental
groups were not taught in the same year (page 171, Table 6). I utilised the
Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) as a basis for the
scoring system she used as well as providing a basis for dividing the groups
according to language proficiency, but she does not spell out the details of
the mark scheme developed on this basis. More detail would allow the reader to
evaluate the research, and its relevance for teaching practice, more

There are three apparent mistakes in the presentation of the data (all the
statistical operations were checked by the reviewer on the basis of the given
data where possible and no other mistakes were found). The percentages in
Table 7 are not correct according to the data provided. A formatting error
places the numbers in the Count row in Table 9 one column to the left of where
they should be. Two tables are labelled as Table 13, affecting the numbering
of subsequent tables. Labour party leader Ed Miliband’s first name is
mistakenly glossed as ‘Samuel’ (page 176).

The title of the monograph does not do the work justice, as it presents what
proves to be a fascinating investigation of how best to characterise and
investigate L2 pragmatics in the classroom as though it were a work of
pragmatic theory. However, this book remains a significant contribution to the
under-researched area of L2 pragmatics, and researchers in RT and competing
theories in pragmatics will find it useful in providing a model for further,
more nuanced research into particular L2 pragmatic abilities such as
figurative language understanding, as I suggests in Chapter 7.


Blakemore, Diane. 2002. Relevance and Linguistic Meaning: The Semantics and
Pragmatics of Discourse Markers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carston, Robyn. 2000. The relationship between generative grammar and
(relevance-theoretic) pragmatics. Language and Communication 20 (1). 87-103.

Carston, Robyn. 2002. Thoughts and Utterances. Oxford: Blackwell.

Carston, Robyn. 2010. Metaphor: Ad hoc concepts, literal meaning and mental
images. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 110 (3). 295-321.

Cummings, Louise. 2009. Clinical Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Ifantidou, Elly. 2011. Genres and Pragmatic Understanding. Athens: Patakis

Pilkington, Adrian. 2000. Poetic Effects: A Relevance Theory Perspective. John
Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2014. Fear and loathing of the English passive. Language
and Communication 37 (1). 60-74.

Reah, Danuta. 1998. The Language of Newspapers. London: Routledge.

Sperber, Dan, Fabrice Clément, Christophe Heintz, Olivier Mascaro, Hugo
Mercier, Gloria Origgi, and Deirdre Wilson. 2010. Epistemic Vigilance. Mind
and Language 25 (4). 359–393.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. 1986/1995. Relevance: Communication and
Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson. 2002/2012. Pragmatics, modularity and
mindreading. Mind and Language 17 (1-2). 3-23. Reprinted in Deirdre Wilson and
Dan Sperber (eds.), Meaning and Relevance, 261-278. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Vega Moreno, Rosa E. 2007. Creativity and Convention: The Pragmatics of
Everyday Figurative Speech. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Wilson, Deirdre. 2000/2012. Metarepresentation in linguistic communication. In
Sperber, Dan (ed.), Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective,
411-448. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Reprinted in Deirdre Wilson and Dan
Sperber (eds.), Meaning and Relevance, 230-258. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Wilson, Deirdre and Dan Sperber. 2012. Explaining irony. In Deirdre Wilson and
Dan Sperber (eds.), Meaning and Relevance, 123-145. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.


Adam Gargani recently completed a PhD at the University of Salford advancing a
theory of how similes are understood from the perspective of relevance theory

Page Updated: 20-May-2015