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Pragmatics

George Yule
Oxford University Press, 1996
pp. xiv +138


Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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The first primer
Probably all of us have one or more books at home we are "going to get around to." Often the subject difficulty, writing style, and length of the reading is what keeps it gathering dust. And some folks just avoid certain topic areas because they "sound hard." The field of pragmatics was one of those for me. Fortunately, the Oxford Introductions to Language Study series has a volume just for us! With a simple name: Pragmatics.

George Yule, one of the great names in Linguistics, has written a book that all of us can enjoy. It's short, but more than that, it's readable. On the other hand, as I've noted in an ELT News review of another volume in this series (Psycholinguistics), these are no "idiot's guides."

pragmatics are scholars' notes on language in use that have fallen into the linguistics wastebasket because they don't fit abstract, universal principles of language

What are pragmatics?
Prof Yule offers four simple characterizations of pragmatics on page three, in lieu of a formal definition, but I particularly like his later depiction that pragmatics are scholars' notes on language in use that have fallen into the linguistics wastebasket because they don't fit abstract, universal principles of language. How can we not appreciate any teacher who offers his subject in such lowly fashion?

Organization
Each title in this series has roughly the same design. I especially like the Survey (section 1) which in this case is an 87 page, nine chapter overview of the field. This is followed by a few "key texts" for each topic covered (chapter by chapter): these are basically 100-250 word clips from notable scholarly papers or books, with a few questions after each, very much in "textbook" fashion. Then comes recommended readings. What sets this series apart is the rating system in these annotated bibliographies. One, two, or three black boxes indicate the reading challenge, from introductory (one black box) to specialized and very demanding reading (three black boxes). The last book section is particularly welcomed, a comprehensive, short answer glossary with page reference. Why don't more books give us this type of glossary? It is the glossary that converts this from a one-use reader to a helpful quick reference.

Comprehensiveness
Obviously, this is not the book your MATESOL professor would select as a principle coursebook. For one thing, grad school texts aren't supposed to be this easy, or this fun! But really, when a book offers only 87 pages for a topic others expound upon for more than 387, something has to be missing. I don't know pragmatics past what this book teaches, so don't ask me what's missing! On the other hand, were I to teach a graduate school class to non-native English speaking teachers of English (and I do), I would strongly consider using this type of book as a counter-point to a more comprehensive text in the teachers' L1 so that they become more familiar with the terminology and argumentation of the field in English.

Interpretation
Since pragmatics as a field of study is interested in how we interpret or understand meanings in context, I thought I'd close this review with this topic. How do we make sense of each other? Darn if I know, and looking at the writings on pragmatics, seeing how the various experts argue with each other, I'm not convinced they know either. Perhaps those scholars' notes really do belong in the wastebasket. On the other hand, I welcome you to take the minimal investment in time (and money) to read through Yule's Pragmatics and come to your own conclusions.

Reference
ELT News review of Psycholinguistics, Scovel, T. (1998).



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