Semantics vs. Pragmatics

Space-time continuum

Whenever someone mentions semantics, the following scene from one of my favourite movies, Grosse Pointe Blank, plays in my head. Martin has just ordered an egg-white omelette at a diner…

Waitress: What do you want in your omelette, sir?
Martin: Nothing in the omelette, nothing at all.
Waitress: Well, that’s not technically an omelette.
Martin: Look, I don’t want to get into a semantic argument, I just want the protein.

Recently, I wrote about the difference between diction and syntax. Today, we’re going to look at the difference between semantics and pragmatics, two sides of a linguistic coin.

Semantics is the branch of linguistics concerned with the meaning of words and their meaning within sentences. Pragmatics looks at the same words and their meaning, but pragmatics also considers context. Consider the following sentence:

  • Calliope saw the tear.

So was someone crying or did something rip? Semantics can tell us that a person named Calliope was looking at one or the other. Pragmatics goes a step further by looking at what else surrounds those words. If you are in the same place as Calliope, you would hear the difference in the way tear was pronounced—and you might see the same thing she does. If you are reading about it, then the context has likely been set for you. For example:

  • Maximilian turned his head away, but not fast enough. Calliope saw the tear.
  • Deirdre stood in front of the space-time continuum, but it was no use. Calliope saw the tear.

For most of us, semantics and pragmatics are instinctive. We process the conversations we hear and the words we read automatically. But we usually notice when the meaning isn’t clear, which can be the result of a poorly worded sentence, an ambiguous word choice, or unclear context. Headlines are usually the worst culprits. Here are some fun examples:

  • Man helps werewolf bite victims.
  • Kids make nutritious snacks.
  • Sexist toys protest.

And for people learning a new language, semantics without pragmatics can lead to all kinds of confusion, especially when using idioms. For example, telling someone who is learning English to break a leg might get you in all kinds of trouble. So be sure to keep your audience in mind when choosing words and phrasing.


Image credit: Olga Sapegina /

Diction vs. Syntax


Today, dear readers, I’d like to talk about two language-related terms that I often hear people use incorrectly. It’s another one of those language/grammar things that is not taught in school—or not taught well, so students never actually end up with an understanding of the terminology.


Diction refers to the words we choose to use. For most people, this can vary depending on the context and the audience. For example:

  • To your friend: There’s a freaking zombie behind you!
  • To a small child: There is a scary monster behind you!
  • To a teenager: Dude, zombie!
  • To your boss: Sir, there appears to be a zombie behind you!
  • To a paranormal research scientist: There is an undead Homo sapiens moving at a moderate pace behind you!
  • To your grandmother: Nanna, granddad is behind you!

Diction can be concrete (The spider was five feet wide and black with yellow spots.) or abstract (The ginormous spider was horrific to behold.).

In addition, diction is generally divided into the following three levels:

High or formal: tends to be fancy, avoids the use of slang, and prefers complex words.

  • Mr. Edwards slew the undead monstrosity with the sabre of his forefather.

Middle: uses correct language, but avoids overly complex words.

  • Mr. Edwards killed the zombie with his grandfather’s sword.

Low or informal: the language used in everyday conversation, tends to be relaxed, and includes slang and colloquialisms.

  • Dave totally smoked that zombie with an old sword.


Syntax refers to the order in which we place words. This is an integral part of English grammar as syntax forms the basis for sentence structure.

We all learn language long before we learn about language. Syntax is the result of studying the way language develops, so it includes all the rules that govern the way we talk to each other. Without syntax, we would all be babbling idiots. And we would also be really confused all the time. Compare the following example:

  • Frankenstein’s monster crashed through the gates, knocking townspeople out of his way.
  • Monster through the townspeople, Frankenstein’s knocking gates out of his way crashed.

 So now you know. Spread the word. And please use your syntax wisely.


Image credit: Einar Bog /