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Pragmatics and Grammar: Language as a Tool for Social Influence



Language is used for communication, but the interpretation of an utterance in communication is only partially determined by the meaning of the language that the speaker uses. A speaker means more than, and sometimes even something different from what the words and the constructions mean. In linguistics, this difference is assumed to be captured by distinguishing between semantics, as part of grammar (the linguistic system), and pragmatics (language use). On the other hand, pragmatically successful communication is a necessary condition for learning a language. And some special form of non-linguistic communication must also have preceded the emergence of language in the evolutionary history of our species.

The first half of this course deals with those general properties of language that are dependent on this special form of communication, governed by a principle of cooperation, unlike (most, if not all) communication in the animal kingdom, through a study of Michael Tomasello’s 2008 book Origins of Human Communication and some seminal papers.

In the second half of the course, students have an option. One is to focus on a number of different ways in which the balance and the connection between grammar and pragmatics works out in different cultures, different domains of societies and cultures, and/or different languages; this will also provide students with a basis to decide which courses they want to take in the remainder of their programme.

The other option is to join the course for students in the MA-program Dutch Studies which focuses on the question how the cooperative nature of human communication influences the linguistic system and how grammatical constructions serve cooperative communication, i.e. the rhetorical functions of language. The literature for this part consists of the book Constructions of intersubjectivity by Arie Verhagen (paperback edition 2007) and a small number of research papers. The language of instruction for this option is Dutch, so students wishing to take this option must understand Dutch.

Students finish the course with a term paper presenting a small research project.


Students are able

  • to explain in theoretical terms how cooperative communication differs from (most) animal communication, and how this underlies general properties of language and the ways language is used in communication,

  • to describe the crucial components of cooperative communication, and the way they are connected,

  • to analyze, for specific instances of spoken or written communication a) what the balance ànd the connection is between conventional meanings of linguistic units and inferred aspects of the interpretation of utterances, and b) in what way the interaction between knowledge of conventions on the one hand, and knowledge of the context produces specific communicative effects.


  • Werkcollege


  • oral presentation (end of block 1): 40%

  • term paper (end of block 2): 60%


Blackboard wordt deze gebruikt voor het ter beschikking stellen van studiemateriaal, voor discussiefora, het stellen van tussentijdse vragen aan docent of medestudenten etc.


Michael Tomasello (2008), Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT-Press.

Arie Verhagen (2005), Constructions of Intersubjectivity. Discourse, Syntax, and Cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [N.B: Extended paperback edition 2007!]

Research papers: available through the digital library or Blackboard.

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prof.dr. A. Verhagen