We never studied linguistics...please explain in simple English. My 14 year old wants to study law at university. She read The Language of Law School: Learning to "Think Like a Lawyer" (2007) by Elizabeth Mertz who earned BA and PhD in Anthropology, JD, but no degrees in linguistics. She keeps writing "metalinguistic" and "metapragmatic". She never defines either, but she defined "pragmatics" on pp 230-231.

  1. For the uninitiated, let me briefly introduce some key concepts. These concepts emerge not only from linguistics but also from the broader field known as “semiotics,” the study of signs. When focusing on “signs,” scholars are able to study all varieties of communicative signaling, including but not confined to linguistic communication. See generally Mertz and Parmentier, Semiotic Mediation. A common analytic division distinguishes several ways that language (or signs generally) carries meaning: (1) semantics: the decontextual meaning that is given by conventional “definition”; for example, when I say “rose,” you can interpret what I am saying in part because you know that the word “rose” generally indicates flowers of a certain kind; (2) pragmatics: the meaning that develops from contexts of speaking; for example, it is pretty difficult to understand the actual meaning or referent of a phrase such as “this rose” without knowing about the context in which it was spoken (because the word “this” generally indicates things that are close by in such a context of communication)—thus part of the meaning of that phrase when it is used (the pragmatic part) comes from its context, for example, from the existence of a flower that is situated close to the speaker of the utterance; (3) syntax: the meaning that relies on the groupings of words into phrases, one with another, in utterances; for example, our deciphering of the phrase “this rose” also depends in part on the relationship of the two words to one another and our understandings of what it means to string these two particular words together in this way (a word of the syntactic Determinant category followed by one of the Noun category, making up a regular phrase type).

I know that "metapragmatic" = meta- + pragmatic. I don't know Greek, but I'm inferring that meta- means "3. higher, beyond;" here. But how does this assist us?

P.H. Matthews's The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics (2014 3 ed.) doesn't define "metapragmatics". But it defines "metalinguistic".

Then I clicked on "metalanguage".

The OED defines "metapragmatics", but its entry is too gruff. Someone please elaborate?

Here are 3 examples of "metapragmatic" in op. cit. p 28. All boldenings are mine.

Building on Whorf’s insights about the orienting power of language structure, we can expand beyond the effects of grammatical categories on speakers’ habitual perceptions to examine the effects of the contextual organization of language as a system in use. Viewed in this way, linguistic ideology and metapragmatic structuring can be understood as powerful influences shaping lawyers’ orientations. As we will see, learning to read written legal texts is one key component of this orienting practice, conveyed in the process of the particular kind of language socialization that we find in legal education.

p 64

But there is a more profound inaccessibility, for even were all the technical vocabulary to be somehow transformed into more accessible language, the meaning for which lawyers read the text would remain elusive to those reading for referential content. A legal reading of case law focuses rather on the metapragmatic structure of the text, in which lies the key to its authority. This metapragmatic structure is (at least) twofold, indexing both the context of prior cases in the textual tradition (now reanimated as precedent for this particular case), and the procedural context of this particular case in its prior transformations.

p 104

However, as a number of scholars have noted, it is also possible for the reporting speaker to infiltrate the reported speech even using direct quotation.11 When this is achieved the process is arguably somewhat covert, because the overt metapragmatic signal that accompanies direct quotation does not alert us to this process of infiltration.

Here's 1 example of "metapragmatics" in op. cit. p 215.

As have linguistic anthropologists working in other settings, I, too, have found that linguistic ideology forms a crucial organizing backbone for ongoing linguistic interaction and socialization. Michael Silverstein notes that

any indexical process, wherein signs point to a presupposed context in which they occur (i.e., have occurred) or to an entailed potential context in which they occur (i.e., will have occurred), depends on some metapragmatic function to achieve a measure of determinacy or textual coherence. . . . It turns out that the crucial position of ideologies of semiosis is in constituting such a “default” mediating metapragmatics. . . . In short, ideology construes indexicality by constituting its metapragmatics. . . . Ideologies present invokable schemata in which to explain/interpret the meaningful flow of indexicals.29

  • I suspect you won't be able to explain it to a 14 year old, when lemontree can barely explain it to this 30-something-year old with a linguistics degree! Might be better to just get a clearer book.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 3, 2021 at 13:22
  • 1
    I think the intended distinction is that pragmatics relates to the text considered in itself - so for example a judgment considered as a resolution of a specific dispute - whereas metapragmatics relates to the text considered as an episode in a legal discourse - so for example a judgment considered as a turning point in a line of cases. IOW the 1st is to do with what the judgment means for the parties to the action, whereas the 2nd is to do with what it tells us about the present state / direction of the law. The legal conversation carried on through the cases is a kind of metadiscourse.
    – rchivers
    Aug 3, 2021 at 17:20
  • I would wait until she's older. 14 is too young to be 100% sure of a future career, and thus what further education they are likely to undertake. It's quite likely she'll change her mind during the next four years.
    – BillJ
    Aug 4, 2021 at 17:22

1 Answer 1


If you write a grammar book about French with English explanations, then French is the object language and English the meta language. "metalinguistic" is the corresponding adjective. E.g., "suis is the first person singular present form of être" is a metalinguistic statement: A piece of language that talks about language. If the language is expressive enough, is possible to use the object language itself as the meta language: E.g., "am is the first person singular present form of to be" is also a metalinguistic statement, where both the object language and the meta language are English.

If you use language to talk about the pragmatic aspects of language, i.e., issues concerning language use and meaning in context, then that's metapragmatics. E.g., "You musnt't use the N-word" is a metapragmatic judgement about the social acceptability of certain expressions. "When you asked 'Do you think this is funny', was this a rhetorical question?" is a metapragmatic question asking about non-literal, contextual meaning of a piece of discourse. "Someone telling you 'I'm going for an ice cream and wouldn't mind some company' is probably meant as an invitation" is a metapragmatic observation about the social acts speakers perform by making certain utterances. And so on.

  • "If you use language to talk about the pragmatic aspects of language, i.e., issues concerning language use and meaning in context, then that's metapragmatics." Really? Isn't it still just metalanguage? After all, pragmatics is one part of language.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 3, 2021 at 5:18
  • Yes, it's metalinguististics, specifically metapragmatics. Aug 3, 2021 at 10:57
  • A. Hübler, Metapragmatics in Foundations of Pragmatics writes that the term is a vague and ambiguous, but the following senses can be ascribed to it: "metapragmatics as the study of explicit metacommunication; metapragmatics as the study of implicit metacommunication; metapragmatics as the study of people’s abstracting from interacting; and metapragmatics as metatheory of pragmatics". The first sense is what I described and seems to me what makes most sense with respect to the cited (somewhat obscure) examples. Aug 3, 2021 at 11:03
  • This first sense is also the one Wiktionary gives: "Language that characterizes or describes the pragmatic function of some speech." Since Wiktionary mentions the coining of the term by an anthropologist and the source OP got their citations from comes from anthropology too, it seems likely that this is the meaning in which the word is used here. Aug 3, 2021 at 11:07
  • Just seems incorrect to me - metapragmatics, if it's like the other meta-s, should involve two levels of pragmatics somehow. If it's just language about pragmatics, then there's no need for a term beyond metalanguage.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 3, 2021 at 11:12

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