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Semantics vs. Pragmatics: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Published on November 16, 2023
Semantics focuses on the meaning of words and sentences in isolation. Pragmatics examines how context affects the interpretation of language.

Key Differences

Semantics delves into the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences when taken in isolation or in their most literal sense. It seeks to understand how meaning is constructed and interpreted. Conversely, pragmatics is concerned with how context, including speaker intentions and situational factors, affects the interpretation of language.
When we study semantics, we're looking at the inherent meaning of words and how they combine to form sentences, devoid of external influences. On the flip side, pragmatics takes a broader view, considering the nuances introduced by the speaker's intention, the listener's interpretation, and other contextual clues.
Semantics can be thought of as the building blocks of meaning in language. For example, the word "dog" semantically refers to a four-legged domesticated animal. However, pragmatics would consider how the word "dog" might be used in different contexts to convey varied meanings or emotions, such as in sarcasm or metaphor.
In semantics, one would study how meanings are derived from individual words and how they interact in sentences. For instance, "The cat is on the mat" has a clear semantic meaning. Yet, in pragmatics, one might ask why someone would state the obvious, implying perhaps a hidden message or context.
Essentially, while semantics offers a foundational understanding of meaning in language, pragmatics layers on the complexities of real-world use, context, and intent.

Comparison Chart


Meaning of words and sentences in isolation.
How context affects language interpretation.


Literal meanings and their combinations.
Speaker intentions, situational factors.


"Dog" means a domesticated animal.
"Dog" used sarcastically to mean a sneaky person.

Study Concern

How meanings are derived from words.
Why a statement was made and its intended effect.


Understanding meaning without external influences.
Interpreting language in real-world situations.

Semantics and Pragmatics Definitions


The relationship between symbols and what they represent.
In computer science, semantics refers to the meaning of a piece of code.


The relationship between signs and their users.
Pragmatics studies how language users navigate politeness or indirectness.


The study of meaning in language.
Semantics helps us understand the significance of words in sentences.


The branch of linguistics concerned with language use in social contexts.
Through pragmatics, we learn how statements can have implied meanings.


The inherent meaning of a word or phrase.
The semantics of bark can refer to a tree's outer layer or a dog's vocalization.


The study of speaker meaning, going beyond literal content.
Can you pass the salt? is a request in pragmatics, not a question about ability.


The branch of linguistics concerned with interpretation.
In semantics, researchers analyze how sentences convey specific ideas.


The study of how context influences the interpretation of language.
Pragmatics considers how sarcasm can change a sentence's meaning.


The structure of meaning within a language.
Different languages might have different semantics for the same concepts.


Concerned with the interpretation of communicative acts in context.
Pragmatics examines how cultural norms might affect language interpretation.


The study or science of meaning in language.


The study of language as it is used in a social context, including its effect on the interlocutors.


The competence of a speaker with regard to the interpretation of the meaning of linguistic structures.


The branch of semiotics that deals with the relationship between signs, especially words and other elements of language, and their users.


Plural of pragmatic


The study of the use of language in a social context.


The study of language use


Can the same sentence have different meanings in semantics and pragmatics?

Yes, semantics provides a literal meaning, while pragmatics considers contextual interpretations.

What does pragmatics focus on?

Pragmatics focuses on how context affects language interpretation.

Is sarcasm a matter of semantics or pragmatics?

Sarcasm is a matter of pragmatics due to its contextual nature.

Which delves deeper into the nuances of real-world language use?

Pragmatics delves deeper into the nuances of real-world language use.

Are idioms studied in semantics or pragmatics?

Idioms are typically studied in pragmatics due to their contextual and non-literal meanings.

Which examines the literal meaning of "kick the bucket"?

Semantics examines the literal meaning.

Is semantics more concerned with the structure or use of language?

Semantics is more concerned with the structure of meaning within language.

How does semantics view metaphorical language?

Semantics would analyze the literal meanings of the words, while pragmatics considers the intended metaphor.

How does pragmatics view politeness in language?

Pragmatics studies how language users convey and interpret politeness in various contexts.

Does semantics look at cultural influences on language?

Semantics focuses on inherent meanings, while cultural influences are typically a matter of pragmatics.

What role does speaker intent play in semantics?

Speaker intent is not a primary concern in semantics but is central in pragmatics.

Which would analyze why someone might state the obvious, semantics or pragmatics?

Pragmatics would analyze the reasons behind stating the obvious, considering context and intent.

Can semantics alone fully capture the meaning of a sentence in all situations?

Not always; while semantics provides foundational meaning, pragmatics often captures the fuller context-driven interpretation.

Which studies the meaning of words, semantics or pragmatics?

Semantics studies the meaning of words.

How does pragmatics view "kick the bucket"?

Pragmatics views it as an idiomatic expression meaning "to die."

Which studies the relationship between symbols and their meaning, semantics or pragmatics?

Semantics studies the relationship between symbols and their inherent meaning.

Which is concerned with speaker intentions, semantics or pragmatics?

Pragmatics is concerned with speaker intentions.

Are semantics and pragmatics exclusive or can they overlap?

While distinct in focus, semantics and pragmatics can and often do overlap in language studies.

Are indirect requests a matter of semantics or pragmatics?

Indirect requests are a matter of pragmatics due to their reliance on context.

Can a word have the same semantic and pragmatic meaning?

Yes, but often, context (pragmatics) introduces nuances beyond the literal (semantic) meaning.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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