A Study of Relationship Between Pragmatics and Stylistics

A Study of Relationship Between Pragmatics and Stylistics


Discourse, stylistics and pragmatics are subfields of linguistics that have attained independent statuses in the arts. With the seeming differences between these fields, there exist a lot of relationships that connect the three areas of study together. This study is an attempt to examine the similarities in relationships between discourse, pragmatics and stylistics in their interpretation of language in communication. The methodology adopted is a descriptive/library research. Findings from the study reveal that discourse, pragmatics and stylistics are different but interrelated fields that share a lot of relationships in language analysis even though their goals and methods of analyzing language are different.


The concern of linguists before the advent of Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics and Stylistics, was basically to study the structural pattern and form of language without much regard for the context and other features that shape meaning. According to Olateju (7), much later, however, ‘the attention of language scholars was shifted from language form to language function. Consequently, many scholars in humanities and social sciences became keenly interested in the study of Discourse, Pragmatics and Stylistics’ (italics mine).

Discourse, Pragmatics and Stylistics are different but closely related linguistic disciplines that are inseparable. There is as much relationship between them as there are differences in their linguistic approach to interpreting meaning. It is, sometimes, not easy to draw a line of demarcation between Discourse, Pragmatics and Stylistics as there is hardly any exercise on Discourse without a bit of Pragmatic or Stylistic input. However, Discourse is much broader in its analysis than the other two disciplines. While Discourse is essentially communication; Stylistics is concerned with the study of the pattern and style of what is communicated; while Pragmatics examines what is being communicated from the speaker-intended meaning. This study is an attempt to discuss the intricate relationship between Discourse, Pragmatics and Stylistics in order to examine the different ways they each approach linguistic meaning.

An Overview of Discourse

Discourse is a discipline that has no stable definition. This is because a lot of scholars have
given varied definitions to it based on their views of the subject matter. The common definition is given by Stubbs. He describes Discourse as ‘language above the sentence or above the clause’ (1). According to Johnstone, it is ‘actual instances of communication in the medium of language’ (2). Discourse is meaning communicated far above what is said. The study of Discourse is indeed the “study of many aspects of language use (Fasold, 65). Discourse is essentially the study of language in use.

The word ‘discourse’ is from the Latin ‘discursus’ which denotes ‘conversation, speech’ (Taiwo, 14).The term Discourse was first used by Zellig Harris in a paper he presented in 1952. As a structural linguist, he did not use Discourse in the sense that it is commonly used today. He used it only as a sequence of utterances. It was in the late 1960s that scholars began to use the term as an approach to the study of social interaction. (Taiwo, 16). Discourse was fully developed in the 1970s as a critique of cognitive process in communication. It is based on the notion that language needs a context to function properly. Thus, ‘it becomes very impossible to understand the linguistic items used in discourse without a context’ (Ahmad, 1).

Discourse is viewed as a social performance or a social action. It is a relative social phenomenon that depends solely on a wide range of disciplines, such as Psychology, Anthropology, Philosophy, Anthropological Linguistics, Sociology, Cognitive and Social Psychology. Fairclough corroborated this idea when he opines that ‘Discourse constitutes the social. Three dimensions of the social are distinguished- knowledge, social relations, and social identity-and these correspond respectively to three major functions of language’ (8). When viewed from the linguistic perspective, ‘discourse is composed of a wide range of disciplines, such as Stylistics, Pragmatics, Conversational Analysis and Speech Act Theory’ (Ahmad, 2).

There is a relationship between Discourse, Discourse Analysis and Critical Discourse Analysis as they could be described as a three- in-one discipline mostly used interchangeably and sometimes, erroneously especially by non-linguists. Discourse is not the same as Discourse Analysis. While Discourse is communication, Discourse Analysis is a way of analysing communication (Aziz, npn). When the analysis of a particular discourse aims at exposing the covert ideology embedded in such a discourse, it can then be said to be at the domain of Critical Discourse Analysis. To put it very simple, when Discourse Analysis becomes more critical (when the hearer or reader uses all linguistic features available to generate meaning of the unsaid in a manner that exposes power and abuse of power, dominance, inequality and invested ideologies), it becomes Critical Discourse Analysis. Generally speaking, ‘every discourse is structured by dominance and the dominant structures are legitimated by the ideologies of powerful groups’ (Wodak and Meyer 3).

Discourse Analysis basically ‘studies and examines how an addresser structures his linguistic messages for the addressee and how the addressee in turn uses some linguistic cues to interpret the messages’ (Brown and Yule in Taiwo 15).Social context plays a vital role in generating meaning in a discourse. In fact, it determines the meaning that is to be communicated. Similarly, certain contextual features equally shape the language people use. These are: the interlocutors themselves, their discourse roles and the physical environment of the discourse, the worldview and cultural practices in the domain of the discourse. Discourse Analysis considers language, used together with the aforementioned features, to determine meaning. Discourse Analysis thus generates data for analysis based on the observation and the intuition of the language users. This is why Taiwo believes that a discourse analyst can analyze virtually every conversation, like ‘(casual, telephone, gossip, etc), speeches (campaigns, formal speeches delivered by political figures, etc), written discourse (novels, plays, news, written speeches, editorials, etc)’ (15). This observation by Taiwo above makes discourse analysis to relate with other linguistic branches like Stylistics and Pragmatics which examine meaning in these communication media. To understand this relationship between discourse and these linguistic branches, it is imperative to understand what stylistics and pragmatics are concerned about.

2.1 The Nature of Pragmatics

Adrian Akmajian conceives of pragmatics as a term that ‘covers the study of language use, and in particular the study of linguistic communication, in relation to language structure and context of utterance.’ (361)When Charles Morris proposed his famous trichotomy of syntax, semantics and pragmatics, he defined the last as ‘the study of the relation of signs to interpreters’ (6). But he soon generalized this to ‘the relation of signs to their users’ (29). What this implies is that pragmatics interprets meaning from the angle of the speaker (i.e. speaker-intended meaning).
Norrick (4) conceives of pragmatics as the study of the context-dependent aspects of meaning which are systematically abstracted away from in the construction of logical form. In the semiotic trichotomy developed by Morris, Carnap, and Peirce in the 1930’s, syntax addresses the formal relations of signs to one another, semantics the relation of signs to what they denote, and pragmatics the relation of signs to their users and interpreters.

According to Wolfram and Norrick (2), even though its roots can be traced back to early classical traditions of rhetoric and stylistics, to Immanuel Kant’s conception of pragmatics as empirical and purposive and to William James, who pointed out its practical nature, modern pragmatics is a fairly recent discipline. Its inauguration as an independent field of study within semiotics took place early in the 20th Century by C. Morris, R. Carnap and ultimately C.S. Peirce. The classic division between syntax, semantics, and pragmatics goes back to Morris, who distinguished three separate “dimensions of semiosis” within his science of signs.

There were and are differences of opinions on where exactly to draw the line between semantics and pragmatics. Some thirty years elapsed before pragmatics finally made its way into modern linguistics in the late 1960s, when linguists began to explore the performance phenomena. To this end, they adopted ideas developed and advanced by L. Wittgenstein, G. Ryle, P. Strawson, J.L. Austin and other eminent (ordinary or natural) language philosophers. It seems safe to claim that the ensuing ‘pragmatic turn’ was most notably induced by J.L. Austin, J.R. Searle and H.P. Grice, who were interested in utterance meaning rather than sentence or word meaning, i.e. in studying unique historical events created by actual speakers to perform linguistic acts in actual situational contexts in order to accomplish specific goals.
Other scientific movements that nourished pragmatics include anthropology (B. Malinowski, P. Wegener, A. Gardiner), contextualism (J.R. Firth), functionalism (K. Buhler, R. Jakobson, D. Hymes), ethnomethodology (H. Garfinkel, E. Goffman, H. Sacks) and European sociology (J. Habermas). Since the pragmatic turn, pragmatics has developed more rapidly and diversely as a linguistic discipline. Since the 1970s, the early Anglo-American framework of pragmatic-linguistic study has been immensely expanded and enhanced by research in Continental Europe and elsewhere. With historiographic hindsight, it can be seen that the broadening, i.e. the interdisciplinary expansion, of the field of pragmatics has been a cumulative process; the broader conception of pragmatics chronologically (and causally) followed the narrower one.
Despite its scientific acclaim, the notion of pragmatics remains somewhat enigmatic and is still difficult to define. This holds for its readings in everyday discourse as well as in scholarly contexts. Nonetheless, when people refer to attitudes and modes of behaviour as pragmatic, they mean that they have a factual kind of orientation in common. People who act pragmatically or take a pragmatic perspective generally have a preference for a practical, matter of fact and realistic rather than a theoretical, speculative and idealistic way of approaching imminent problems and handling everyday affairs. To put it differently, they share a concrete, situation-dependent approach geared to action and usage rather than an abstract, situation-independent and system-related point of view. To assume a pragmatic stance in everyday social encounters as well as in political, historical and related kinds of discourse, means to handle the related affairs in a goal-directed and object-directed, common-sense and down to earth kind of way. Such an understanding of pragmatics as an attitude in non-scientific discourse has obviously left its traces on the scientific definitions of the term. By and large, one can say that in semiotics and philosophy, ‘pragmatics characterizes those theoretical and methodological approaches that are oriented toward use and context rather than toward some system, and that they regard use and context as creating a high degree of analytical surplus’ (Wolfram and Norrick 2).

While essentially the same is true for linguistics in general, there is no commonly accepted definition of pragmatics in linguistics which would refer to a single, unified and homogeneous field of study. In contemporary linguistics, scholars can identify a narrow and a broad way of delineating pragmatics (of which the former is sometimes allocated to an “Anglo-American” and the latter to a “Continental [European]” tradition of pragmatics, (Huang xi). According to the narrow view, Wolfram and Norrick (2) observe that pragmatics is understood as ‘the systematic investigation of what and how people mean when they use language as a vehicle of action in a particular context and with a particular goal in mind.’ Thus, the context-dependency of utterance meaning is the central component of more narrowly defined accounts of pragmatics, which focus on a few key issues that can be juxtaposed with related issues in other modules of language theory such as grammar and semantics. Those issues include ‘indexicality/deixis (versus anaphora), presuppositions, implicatures (versus entailments) and speech acts (versus types of sentences), to name only the most conspicuous topics’ (Wolfram and Norrick 4).

According to Wolfram and Norrick (4), in a much broader point of view, pragmatics is ‘the scientific study of all aspects of linguistic behaviour. In particular, pragmatics includes patterns of linguistic actions, language functions, types of inferences, principles of communication, frames of knowledge, attitude and belief, as well as organizational principles of text and discourse’. Wolfram (3) summarizes the thrust of pragmatics as ‘a discipline which deals with meaning-in-context, which for analytical purposes can be viewed from different perspectives (that of the speaker, the recipient, the analyst, etc.). It bridges the gap between the system side of language and the use side, and relates both of them at the same time.’

Many considerations come to mind when trying to examine the scope of pragmatics. First is the definition of pragmatics by Yule which has a four dimensional approach. He sees pragmatics as ‘the study of speaker meaning, contextual meaning, how more gets communicated than is said, and the study of the expression of relative distance.’(3) By this definition, he has accounted in a way for the scope of this discipline. According to Osisanwo (26), the second definition has to do with our own views of the scope of pragmatics which include:
The message being communicated
The participants involved in the message
The knowledge of the world which they share
The deductions to be made from the text on the basis of the context
The implications of what is said or what is left unsaid
The impact of the non-verbal aspect of interaction on meaning.

Osisanwo went ahead to state that the goals of pragmatics can be understood if we frame the following questions bearing in mind that pragmatics has been said to be the study of language in use in a particular context or situation.
How do utterances convey meaning?
What are the roles of context in encoding and decoding messages in an utterance?
How do interlocutors respond to messages and meaning?
What are the causes of wrong message encoding?
What are the causes of wrong message decoding?

From the above points, if there are the goals of pragmatics, then the goals should be to explain how utterances convey meaning in context, how meaning is decoded from utterances in context and in particular situation, how context contributes to the encoding and decoding of meaning, how speakers and hearers of utterance perceive them, how speakers say one thing and mean something else, and how deductions are made in context with respect to what meaning has been encoded in particular utterance. The next section will examine stylistics as a branch of linguistics.

2.2 What is Stylistics?

Scholars have attempted to define stylistics from their own perspectives. Crystal (34) opines that ‘stylistics is the study of aesthetic use of language in all the scopes of linguistics.’ Contrary to this definition by Crystal of stylistics to be of ‘all linguistic domains’ is Short, who asserts that ‘Stylistics is an approach to the analysis of (literary) texts using linguistic descriptions’ (1). Short views stylistics as the scrutiny of fictitious texts in accordance with linguistic guidelines; he therefore limits the scope of stylistics to literary text neglecting the non-literary aspect of it. To Freeman, ‘stylistics is a sub-discipline which started in the second half of the 20th Century. It can be seen as a logical extension of moves within literary criticism early in the 20th century to concentrate on study texts, rather than authors’ (1). Leech and Short say ‘stylistics is simply defined as the (linguistic) study of style; it is rarely undertaken for its own sake, simply as an exercise in describing what use is made of language’. (13) They believe style is studied basically to explain something and in general, literary stylistics has, or implicitly or explicitly, the goal of explaining the relation between language and artistic function.

Short and Candlin are of the view that ‘stylistics is a linguistic approach to the study of the literary texts. It thus, embodies one essential part of the general course – Philosophy; that of combining language and literary study’ (183). Widdowson defines stylistics ‘as the study of literary discourse from a linguistic orientation.’ (3) He takes the view that what distinguishes stylistics from literary criticism on the one hand is that it is a means of linking the two. He also proposes that stylistics occupies the middle-ground between linguistics and literary criticism and its function is to mediate between the two. In this role, its concern necessarily overlaps with those in terms of expediency and effect.

The above definitions show that it is not an easy task in giving a universally acceptable definition to the discipline called stylistics. However, it is generally agreed among linguists that stylistics is the study of style. This idea of defining style becomes another challenging task because style means a lot of things to different people. The definition of style as an addition can be further sub-grouped according to which effect of the addition is stressed in each definition. Bally, like many other rhetoricians, has explicitly expressed that style is a dry and scholarly recapitulation of facts. To him, stylistics studies ‘…the effective value of the features of organized language and the reciprocal action or the expressive features that together form the system of the means of expression of a language.’ (53)

Bally (54) emphasizes that language is a set of means of expression which are simultaneous with thought. He distinguishes between internal stylistics, which studies the balance and the contrast of effective versus intellectual element within the same language, and external or comparative stylistics which compares such features of language with those of another. He stresses that style is a definite emotional effect achieved by linguistic means in a text. Style, therefore, stretches without breaking.

Enkvist (10) distinguishes among three points of view in defining style. According to him, style can be defined from the point of view of the writer where he/she attempts to penetrate and reveal the inner form of his/her subjects. Secondly, there are definitions which deal with the characteristics of the text itself, attempting the analysis of style entirely in terms of objective investigation of textual features. Thirdly, he gives a definition based on impressions of the readers. Enkvist further asserts that a thorough definition of style must take into consideration stylistic analyses that are operationally concrete and based on linguistic features.

With this in mind, Enkvist (12) defines the style of a text to be the ‘aggregate of the textual probability of its linguistic item.’ This definition, however, looks at “contextual probability” as being central to every text and such includes an autonomous reference to a relevant norm conditioned by past experience. Thus, Enkvist view holds the idea that phonological, grammatical and lexical items constitute contextual probabilities that are integral to the study of style. He, however, fails to recognize pragmatics which is more of a “contextual probability” while the former set constitutes probability that all have to do with the total option available in language use.

According to Wales, ‘style refers to the perceived manner of expression in writing or speaking’ (373). In this case, the style of writing can be radical, tragic, comic, etc., depending on the ultimate intentions of the writer. In the above definition, style enables the writer to express his/her feelings to the outer world; because literature is not written in a vacuum, there must be a message a writer has in mind to pass across, the way the writer uses language to convey his/her message to the world is referred to as the style of the writer. To buttress this definition, Malie as cited in Lawal says ‘the style of an author has a consistency due to the habitual nature of the writing process and this consistency can be determined, measured and used to determine consanguinity between an unknown and a set of authenticated text.’ (134)

Stylistics is a term that is mostly associated with the literary genre but modern linguistic exercises have clearly shown that there is much of stylistic analysis to be done on non-literary texts as is done on literary texts. A literary genre can be seen as style characteristics that is collectively recognized and agreed upon. Some of the aspects of literary stylistics include the use of dialogue, the description of scenes, the use of active and passive voice and the distribution of sentence length (Ahmad 2).

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