The Problem of Pragmatics

The Problem of Pragmatics

I’ll never forget an incident that occurred when I was five years old and attending kindergarten. It was holiday time, and we were putting on a recital. The parents were invited, so the teacher printed out little programs. And since most mothers and fathers were coming as couples, she handed me a stack of programs and told me, “Put one on every other chair.”

I proceeded to put a program on each chair in the room. The teacher started yelling at me, “No! Every other chair! Every other chair!”

I was perplexed. There was THIS chair…and the rest of the chairs in the room were all OTHER chairs. I knew the meaning of the word “every,” I knew the meaning of the word “other,” and I knew the meaning of the word “chair.” That still didn’t help me understand what the heck she wanted me to do.

This demonstrates the difference between the “semantics” and the “pragmatics” of a language. Semantics refers to the technical, dictionary definition of words. Pragmatics refers to the way that words are sometimes used in slang, figures of speech, and everyday conversation which do not match their technical, dictionary definitions. And unfortunately, this can make things quite difficult for little kids on occasion.

Let’s say a child draws a picture and insists that it be sent to Grandma. The parents comply. Then a couple of days later the child is told, “Grandma was tickled to death by the picture you sent her.” Now the child is devastated because he believes he killed his beloved grandmother. How is he supposed to know that “tickled to death” is a good thing? Sounds pretty awful according to semantics.

So when you make a casual comment to your young child and find him looking back at you in confusion, dismay, or horror, chances are you’re dealing with the problem of pragmatics and a bit of awareness and understanding is in order.

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. Mike”) is a member of the management team at Romp n’ Roll. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in human development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also held a position as a researcher with the Harvard Preschool Project. He may be contacted via e-mail at