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Review of  The Oxford Dictionary of Pragmatics

Reviewer: Rachele De Felice
Book Title: The Oxford Dictionary of Pragmatics
Book Author: Yan Huang
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 24.3672

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Rachele De Felice, Department of English Language and Literature, 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 meaning.
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 entry.
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 material.
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.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199539802
Pages: 352
Prices: U.S. $ 55.95