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Pragmatics and Grammar: Language as a Tool for Social Influence


Admission requirements



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 speakers 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 (De Sturende Kracht van Taal: Betekenis en Communicatie; 5584KN912), 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 complete the course with a term paper presenting a small research project.

Course objectives

Course objective 1: Students can 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,

Course objective 2: Students are able to describe the crucial components of cooperative communication, and the way they are connected,

Course objective 3: Students can analyze 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.


The timetable will be available by June 1st on the website.

Mode of instruction


Course Load

  • Time spent on attending seminars: 28 hours

  • Time for studying the compulsory literature: 154 hours

  • Time spent on assignments and writing a paper (including reading/research): 98 hours

Assessment Method

  • Oral presentation (end of block 1) 30%

  • Term paper (end of block 2) 70%

Resit: students who fail the course may resit the term paper.


This course is supported by Blackboard.

Reading list

  • 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!]
    [And research papers].


Students should register through uSis. If you have any questions, please contact the departmental office, tel. 071 5272144 or mail:

When registering, students that are registered for the specialisation that this course belongs to, or the Research Master, take priority. The deadline for registration is August 15. All other students should contact the coordinator of studies

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration Studeren à la carte
Registration Contractonderwijs


MA Linguistics departmental office, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144;