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While going through a course book on pragmatics, I came across this novel and seemingly interesting concept. I was intrigued to know what a wastebasket has to doin pragmatics, but it is still an enigma for me. Can anyone please unfold this mystery for me?

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"Pragmatics wastebasket" may refer to the view that there is no legitimate field of pragmatics, but rather calling a phenomenon "pragmatic" is just used by some grammarians as an excuse for not giving any real explanation for it.

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Metaphorically, the "pragmatics wastebasket" is where you toss things that are (just) pragmatics rather than (real) linguistics.1 The implication is that linguistics is amenable to scientific study, while pragmatics is meaningless stuff that the philosophers of language can go bicker over as long (as it keeps them off the streets).

Modern use of the term is almost always ironic.2 If you say, "I'm tossing that question in the pragmatics wastebasket", you're jokingly saying "That question is just pragmatics, and therefore not worthy of scientific study", but what you really mean is, "That question is definitely worthy of scientific study, but too hard to deal with right now" or at least "… but would take us too far afield."

The original use of the term was critical.3 I think it was invented in 1970 or so by Yehoshua Bar-Hillel, to argue that someone needed to "clean the wastebasket" and come up with a serious study of pragmatics. After using the term in a few papers, he held a symposium to kickstart that study, and compiled the results in a book called Pragmatics of Natural Languages, which popularized the term even farther.


1. This distinction is much older than the wastebasket metaphor. I think it goes back to Jerry Fodor's work in the early 1960s.

2. Well, obviously there are some unironic uses. If I'm talking about the history of the field and refer to the early attempts to empty the pragmatics wastebasket, I'm using the wastebasket metaphor seriously. But you know what I mean. (And explaining how you know what I mean, that's just pragmatics.)

3. In this original use, the metaphor was also a bit wider. Pragmatics being a wastebasket implies not only that it's a pile of garbage, but also that you can root through the garbage and cherry-pick bits that aren't garbage. People were just beginning to study things like discourse structure that had previously been "just pragmatics". The implication at the time was that doing a formal study of discourse structure rescued it from the "just pragmatics" trash and turned it into a part of "real linguistics" instead. That's no longer an issue; when people do formal studies of discourse structure, they're seen as studying a part of pragmatics (the same way people study information structure as part of semantics, or prosody as part of phonology). So, that facet of the metaphor isn't as relevant today.

  • Please clarify the end of footnote 3 (my edit made that part even worse). Off to reading J. L. Mey Pragmatics: Overview – vectory Jan 12 at 5:04
  • @vectory I rejected your edit, but then manually re-did many of your changes (because most of them were good). For footnote 3… I tried rewriting it, but I'm not sure how to make it clear without making it way too verbose. I suppose if worst comes to worst, I can just make it too verbose, and then cross my fingers and hope you or someone else can figure out how to edit it down? – abarnert Jan 12 at 6:39

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