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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of Pragmatics

Reviewer: Sherry Yong Chen
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of Pragmatics
Book Author: Yan Huang
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 28.4297

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REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


This edited volume contains 30 chapters on various aspects of the study of pragmatics, written by a total of 32 contributors. The volume is edited by Yang Huang, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Auckland. Huang is a renowned scholar in the field of pragmatics and has published extensively on various topics; he is best known for his work on anaphora and related phenomena at the syntax-pragmatics interface.

The majority of the contributors are pioneers in the respective sub-discipline, and many have devoted years of research to the contributed topic. In fact, some contributors play a central role in the development of a pragmatic theory, e.g. Deirdre Wilson on Relevance Theory, Penelope Brown on the face-saving model of politeness, and Laurence R. Horn on the neo-Gricean lexical pragmatic theory, to just name a few. The expertise of the contributors certainly sets high expectations and speaks quite in favour of the overall quality of this edited volume.

The introduction chapter provides an overview of pragmatics as a subfield of linguistics, with a particular emphasis on its interplay with many kinds of disciplinary influences. It begins by laying out two major schools of thoughts – which are further spelt out in the subsequent chapters in Part 1 – and demonstrating the strengths of each school and how their contributions are in a somewhat complementary relationship, motivating the need to bring together their research outcomes by compiling this edited volume. The editor then moves onto an introduction of macro-pragmatics, dividing the current central topics into three groups: those that are cognitive oriented, those that are socially and/or culturally oriented, and those that are at the interface of various aspects of language. This section therefore essentially foreshadows Part 2 – Part 5, and it is quite successfully achieved by fleshing out the high-level questions – many remaining largely unanswered – that can be used to guide the readers through the remainder of the volume.

The 29 chapters other than the editorial introduction are grouped into 5 parts:
1: Schools of Thought, Foundations, and Theories
2: Central Topics
3: Macro-Pragmatics and Cognition
4: Macro-Pragmatics and Society/Culture
5: Interfaces

Part 1 introduces the mainstream schools and theories of pragmatics, laying down the philosophical foundation of the study of pragmatics. The two major schools of thought, namely the Anglo-American school and the European Continental school, take a component view and a functional perspective on pragmatics respectively, in relation to other areas of linguistics. Guided by this distinction in the broad sense, six chapters are devoted to bringing together views from both sides in order to appreciate the different ways of approaching pragmatic questions, as well as to provide a solid theoretical and philosophical foundation for further discussion. Against this setup, Anne Bezuidenhout opens up Chapter 2 with a discussion of several debates between contextualism and semantic minimalism, which includes the division of cognitive resources between semantics and pragmatics in human language faculty, a recurring topic in this edited volume (and indeed, in pragmatics research over the last few decades). Having identified the key debates, Bezuidenhout ultimately offers five strategies to “break the deadlock” between the two camps, but concludes that there is no “knockdown argument” against either, leaving the debate fundamentally unsettled for future work. Chapter 3, written by the editor himself, revisits the classical and neo-Gricean enterprises by assessing their roles in linguistic theory. Specifically, it presents a concise outline and evaluation of neo-Gricean pragmatic theory (particularly the Hornian (1984, 2012) and Levinsonian (1987, 2000) models) in the present day context. In a similar spirit, Relevance Theory is examined in Chapter 4, contributed by Deirdre Wilson who is herself a co-founder of the theory. The chapter proceeds with the relation between relevance and cognition as well as communication, and ends with some new directions that are borne out of recent research conducted by relevance theorists. Next comes Chapter 5, written by Reinhard Blutner who dedicates the chapter to a critical discussion of three formal frameworks, namely optimality-theoretical pragmatics, game-theoretical pragmatics, and decision-theoretical pragmatics, all of which are rooted in the exploitation of formal mathematical instruments. Chapter 6 by Jef Verschueren turns to contextualizing the European Continental perspective view of pragmatics by first questioning the conventionally held dichotomy between the Anglo-American school and the European Continental school, and it later considers the contrast between Western and Non-Western based conceptualization of language use, returning to the philosophical foundation of pragmatics research. Lastly, Chapter 7 by Jacob L. Mey examines the sociological foundation of pragmatics by taking an anecdotal and highly self-reflexive approach, all while offering a comprehensive survey of common practices in the study of language meaning in social context. Taken together, Part 1 thus comprises seven independent chapters about most major theories in the field of pragmatics, with an adequate coverage of both philosophical and methodological foundations of study.

Part 2 contains several long-standing central topics in the field of pragmatics, with a very well-established theme in each chapter. Chapter 8 by Yan Huang looks at both conversational and conventional implicature, covering both existing accounts and latest developments in the study of implicature. Presupposition is then discussed in Chapter 9, where Bart Geurts explores what constitutes given information in a context, and whether presuppositions are always contextually given. Chapter 10 by Stephen C. Levinson calls for a renaissance of interest in speech acts – which the author claims has been left off the research agenda since a few decades ago – by emphasizing their fundamental role in language science and inviting new light to be shed on some long-standing questions. The last three chapters of Part 2 share a broad interest in the notion of referentiality and contextual dependency. First comes an examination of deixis in Chapter 11, contributed by Jack Sidnell and N. J. Enfield who start with an investigation of communicative acts in social interaction and demonstrative systems in human language, and ultimately build up to the argument that deixis is a “low-cost” and “highly efficient” form of referencing. Chapter 12 then continues with the theme of reference, in which Barbara Abbott investigates the various ways that speakers use to accomplish reference; in particular, she takes up the novel position that verbs and adjectives, in addition to nominals, can also be analyzed as effective tools of referring. Finally, Chapter 13 by Anita Fetzer takes an interdisciplinary approach to examine the notion of context as a major field of study, marking the traditional distinction between semantics and pragmatics, and ultimately suggests possible bridging points for the diverging perspectives in the most prominent approaches presented here.

Part 3 and Part 4 engage with interdisciplinary approaches to central issues in the pragmatics literature, ranging from clinical, computational, and experimental studies to sociological perspectives. Part 3 takes the theme of cognitively oriented topics, with each chapter providing an overview of the subfield under discussion. In general, chapters in this part all concern the mental processes of human communication, but I was fascinated by how each chapter takes an almost completely different approach to the introduction of the respective subfield of study: Chapter 14 by Bruno G. Bara begins with three fundamental concepts, i.e. the motivation to cooperate, a shared structure of knowledge, and the intention to communicate, as the analytical tools of study, before presenting an outline of the Cognitive Pragmatics Theory and critically examining the empirical evidence for or against it. In a rather different fashion, Pamela R. Rollins devotes Chapter 15 to explaining how each stage of pragmatic development comes about over the course of our early life within the social interactionalist framework, particularly the development of social routines from nonverbal to verbal interactions. Rollins thoughtfully concludes with a remark on the importance of cultural differences, noting that pragmatics research must bear in mind these mediating factors especially when making cross-cultural generalizations. Taking once again a different approach, Raymond W. Gibbs in Chapter 16 introduces the utility of various experimental techniques that contribute to our understanding of several traditional concerns in pragmatics theories. The last three chapters of Part 3 (Chapter 17 on computational pragmatics by Harry Bunt, Chapter 18 on clinical pragmatics by Louise Cummings, and Chapter 19 on neuropragmatics by Brigitte Stemmer) demonstrate how the analysis of annotated corpora, clinical assessments and treatments, as well as investigations into the neural network can help present-day pragmaticists tackle questions that relate to the broad notion of “macro-pragmatics”; although these are areas that I am not particularly familiar with, each of the contributors carefully sets up their discussions in such a way that I find it fairly easy to follow the main ideas.

Meanwhile, Part 4 zooms in onto some socially and/or culturally oriented questions. Although my current research no longer focuses on this particular area, my undergraduate background in sociolinguistics allows me to revisit the topics in these chapters with a rekindled interest. In Chapter 20, Penelope Brown presents some approaches that pursue a universalist view of (im)politeness before critically examining these proposals, and eventually surveys some recent empirical research that investigates politeness in different cultural settings. With this increasing awareness of cultural factors in pragmatics research, a closer look at cross- and intercultural pragmatics is naturally followed in Chapter 21, where Istvan Kecskes guides us through the burgeoning literature that highlights differences as well as parallels in communicative styles across cultures. Chapter 22 by J. César Félix-Brasdefer continues with the theme of cross-cultural pragmatics, but with a shift of focus to the acquisition of pragmatic norms in L2, i.e. the idea of “interlanguage”. Finally, Emanuel A. Schegloff closes this Part with Chapter 23 on conversation analysis (CA), where he offers a concise overview of the commonly pursued inquiries and some “practiced solutions”.

I would like to additionally highlight that the chapters in Part 3 and Part 4 not only function to introduce the key research topics in macro-pragmatics, but they also identify and exemplify many different methodologies that can be employed to addressing empirical questions, with insights from state-of-the-art development in an interdisciplinary approach to pragmatics. While many of these chapters are on relatively new disciplines, they are an accurate reflection of the most recent development in the field and certainly invite many old questions to be re-visited with new care. Against this background, the endeavor to include these topics in the edited volume will hopefully serve to open up new research agendas.

Finally, Part 5 aims to engage with topics and questions that lie at the interface between pragmatics and other areas of linguistics. Robyn Carston opens up Chapter 24 with an attempt to defy the prevalent idea that pragmatics is secondary to semantics (i.e. pragmatics as the “wastebasket” of linguistics), emphasizing on the priority of pragmatics from communicative, evolutionary, and developmental perspectives. Mira Ariel then offers a very sophisticated yet accessible discussion about the division of labor between pragmatics and grammar in Chapter 25, where she considers these two “cognitive competencies” as differing only in terms of the “code versus inference” distinction, arguing against the feasibility of any over-complicated models. Under the same theme, Chapter 26 by Wolfgang U. Dressler and Lavinia Merlini-Barbaresi is dedicated to fleshing out some of the pragmatic uses of morphological marking, an area of study dubbed as “morphopragmatics” which assumes a direct interplay between morphology and pragmatics with no mediation via semantics. In Chapter 27, Laurence R. Horn introduces various lexical phenomena that are driven by pragmatic principles, specifically examining the role of conversational implicatures in word formation, and word choice, as well as meaning change. Turning to the sound aspect of linguistic systems, Julia Hirschberg in Chapter 28 discusses how pragmatics influences the variation of prosody in discourse and vice versa, highlighting the influence of prosodic prominence to different parts of an utterance on the resolution of sentence ambiguity and the interpretation of various semantic/pragmatic phenomena, e.g. focus and contrast. Chapter 29 arrives with yet another change of domain, where Andreas H. Jucker examines language change from a pragmatic (but also sociological) perspective, modifying a model that sees the origin of language change in discourse innovations by adopting the notion of community of practice. This Part, and in fact the entire edited volume, ends with Chapter 30, in which Gregory Ward, Betty J. Birner, and Elsi Kaiser talk about theories of information structure – particularly those related to non-canonical constructions and inferred information – and link these discussions to various psycholinguistic investigations.

Overall, I find the handbook very successful in promoting recent novel ideas, particularly those that arise from an interdisciplinary approach to central issues in pragmatics.


The goal of the handbook, as the editor states in the preface, is to provide “a collection of authoritative, comprehensive, thorough, insightful, and yet accessible state-of-the-art critical surveys of current original research in pragmatics”. Bearing this in mind, I read the handbook with the expectation of seeing a wide range of topics, and my evaluation will be focusing on the comprehensiveness, accessibility, and originality of this handbook from the perspective of a graduate student.

Generally speaking, each choice of topic is fairly well justified by the respective contributor(s). The range of topics is undoubtedly impressive, with the background assumptions valid and of much relevance in respect to the recent development of the field. For example, one important virtue of Part 1 is that each chapter can be read on its own to get a quick yet fairly comprehensive overview of the pragmatic theory under question, which makes it suitable as a complementary reading for a graduate course in pragmatics. I would also like to highlight that the chapters in Part 2 provide a decent combination of reviewing existing theories and rethinking some important notions with new care; Chapter 10 by Stephen C. Levinson on speech act theories and Chapter 13 by Anita Fetzer on context stand out as two excellent examples, both of which offer a historical development of the research while commenting on some novel insights from recent studies. The thoroughness and comprehensiveness of these chapters is highly appreciated.

The handbook aims to target a wide range of readership, including “scholars, researchers, and graduate and advanced undergraduate students specializing in linguistics”, particularly those in the subfield of pragmatics (and semantics). Indeed, the breadth of coverage of this edited volume makes it suitable for researchers from many disciplines that are related to language science. Having said that, speaking from the perspective of a graduate student, it seems a pity to me that perhaps not all chapters are written to be at the same level of accessibility to a less expert readership. For example, Part 3 has a particular focus on experimental studies of various kinds which, although particularly to my liking, may require some background knowledge for advanced undergraduates to thoroughly comprehend. Relating to this point, I would like to suggest that chapters in both Part 3 and Part 4 could potentially use more linguistic data (explicitly) to illustrate the arguments, as it would make it easier for less advanced readers to follow these experimental results; an outstanding example would be Chapter 23 by Schegloff, where the contributor has clearly made a commendable attempt to provide detailed illustrations in order to demonstrate how Conversation Analysis is done.

The handbook is fitting for the existing literature and the recent trends in pragmatics research, and its strengths lie mainly in the combination of theoretical progress with the latest experimental findings. Against the background of a growing body of experimental work in pragmatics, the selected chapters’ coverage of topics is extensive and reasonably classified in terms of the topic’s relation to either cognition or society/culture. While the wide range of experimental work in Part 3 and Part 4 deserves appreciation for enriching the content and coverage of recent development in pragmatics, the majority of these chapters may benefit from making more effort to engage with the central topics of pragmatics discussed in Part 2, or how empirical evidence informs us of the theoretical foundations introduced in Part 1. This is, of course, a balance that is difficult to strike. While I do recognize that perhaps not all contributors share the same goal, it seems to me that Chapter 16 by Gibbs and Chapter 17 by Bunt would make two excellent examples of how experimental findings relate to the traditional Gricean school of pragmatic research. I particularly appreciate their effort in motivating the need to study these questions experimentally, although the experimental work in Chapter 16 can potentially be spelt out with slightly more details (I understand the author’s intention to focus on answering the theoretical questions by the use of experimental methods, but I also wonder if it may help the readers to follow the conclusions if we could have more information about the experimental studies per se).

Coherence cross chapters is best exemplified in Part 4, where all four chapters fall under the broad theme of cross- and intercultural pragmatics, each making an adequate effort to relate to the upcoming chapter without losing concentration on the current flow of presentation.
One chapter that may stand out is Chapter 29 on Historical Pragmatics, which is devoted to the broad phenomenon of language change from a pragmatic perspective, whereas the remaining chapters in Part 5 relates specifically to another area of linguistics (or rather, another aspect of language).

In addition to the virtue mentioned above, I am intrigued to see that this edited volume also offers new insights into several long-standing puzzles, and opens up some potential future research agendas that deserves following up. This is especially well achieved in the concluding remarks of Chapter 4, where Deirdre Wilson identifies several theoretically motivated and empirically significant directions as well as challenges faced by relevance theorists. With special reference to recent work by Sperber et al (2010) and Wilson (2011), the contributor suggests the exploration of how “mindreading, communicative, and epistemic vigilance” capacities may interact during the comprehension of irony utterances, and more specifically, how procedural expressions may be linked to epistemic vigilance mechanisms such as modality and evidentiality. Chapter 19 also concludes with a rather self-contained proposal on the outlook and future directions of neuropragmatics research, outlining many questions that await further investigation. These endeavors to highlight new directions certainly deserve special recognition and appreciation.


Horn, L. (1984). Toward a new taxonomy for pragmatic inference: Q-based and R-based implicature. In D. Schiffrin (Ed.), Meaning, form, and use in context: Linguistic applications (pp. 11-42). Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press

Horn, L. (2012). Implicature. In D. Fara, & G. Russell (Eds.), The Routledge companion to philosophy of language (pp. 53-66). New York/London: Routledge.

Huang, Y. (Ed.). (2017). The Oxford handbook of pragmatics. Oxford University Press.

Levinson, S. C. (1987). Pragmatics and the grammar of anaphora: A partial pragmatic reduction of binding and control phenomena. Journal of Linguistics, 23(02), 379-434.

Levinson, S. C. (2000). Presumptive meanings: The theory of generalized conversational implicature. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Sperber, D., Clément, F., Heintz, C., Mascaro, O., Mercier, H., Origgi, G., & Wilson, D. (2010). Epistemic vigilance. Mind & Language, 25(4), 359-393.

Wilson, D. (2011). The conceptual-procedural distinction: Past, present and future. In V. Escandell-Vidal, M. Leonetti, & A. Ahern (Eds.), Procedural meaning: Problems and perspectives (pp. 3-31). Bingley: Emerald.
Sherry Yong Chen is a PhD student at the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy, MIT. Her research focuses on theoretical and experimental syntax/semantics/pragmatics, particularly issues related to the notion of anaphoricity in natural language.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199697960
Pages: 800
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