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What are communicative acts*? Where do communicative acts fit into pragmatics?


What are communicative acts?

As you learned on the first page of this module, pragmatics refers to the way we convey and interpret meaning in communication. Since it would be impossible to cover every area of pragmatics (i.e., all the ways to convey meaning) in this website, we have chosen communicative acts as our point of departure.

A communicative act is an utterance, or set of utterances (communicative act set), that we use to perform some sort of linguistic action or function in communication. For example, we use language to apologize, request, compliment, invite, refuse, greet, and complain.

Here are some things to remember about communicative acts:

  • The length and complexity of these acts can vary greatly. Sometimes they require only one word (e.g., the greeting "Hello!") and other times require numerous words and sentences in a complex sequence (e.g., "Good Morning, Mr. President. It is a pleasure to meet you.").
  • The meaning of any communicative act is influenced by non-verbal signals such as gestures and even silence.

Where do communicative acts fit into pragmatics?

Learning to effectively perform communicative acts is essential in accurately conveying and interpreting meaning in any language.

Remember, meaning is the key to pragmatics. You may have all the proper language skills, but ineffective pragmatic strategies will limit your ability to accurately express and interpret meaning.

What are the necessary pragmatic strategies you need to convey meaning appropriately?

PRAGMATIC STRATEGIES can be divided into two types:

  1. Sociocultural Strategies—understanding the sociocultural norms of behavior underlying the communicative act
  2. Language Strategies—understanding the appropriate language behavior (e.g., grammar, vocabulary, structures) for performing the communicative act

Both types of strategies are necessary in order to convey and interpret the proper meaning of a communicative act.

How would you apply these pragmatic strategies?

Let's look at a real-life situation to get an idea of how these pragmatic strategies apply to communication in Spanish.

A passenger boards the bus in Madrid, Spain and asks a stranger to switch seats. He/She says:

Perdón, ¿Le importaría cambiarse de sitio?

three people sitting on a crowded bus


Many sociocultural strategies are needed for this situation.

For example...

  • The boarding passenger must know whether or not it is even appropriate to ask the person to change seats. Is it different for elderly people? Young people?
  • The boarding passenger must also decide how to ask based on the social relationship and imposition of the request. How would it be different if there was only one other seat next to a bunch of screaming kids?

Knowing how to handle these situations requires the necessary sociocultural knowledge of the society you are in (in this case, Madrid) as well as the different options available for making the request.

There are also many language strategies that are necessary.

For example...

  • You would need to know the conditional form (typically, but not always, more polite between strangers in Spanish)
  • The proper vocabulary (i.e., perdón vs. lo siento)
  • The other linguistic elements involved in the request (por favor)

As you can see, it requires a complex set of skills, even for a relatively straightforward situation. This website is designed to help you learn some pragmatic strategies (sociocultural and language) for successfully maneuvering communicative acts (e.g., inviting, requesting, apologizing) in Spanish.

*Note: The technical term for communicative acts is speech acts. However, for the purposes of this site, we will use the term communicative acts since it conveys a more comprehensive view that includes verbal and non-verbal pragmatic features.

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