Over the past two decades the field of Speech and Language Pathology has undergone a shift in perspective so radical that it has been described as the "pragmatic revolution" (Conti-Ramsden & Gunn, 1986, p. 339; Myers 1989, p. 186). The progression has been away from a view of language as a formal and context-independent system towards a far broader framework derived from a functional contextual model (Friel-Patti & Conti-Ramsden, 1984; Hickmann, 1986.) This model gives priority to the effective use of language in context. Areas in which its impact has been especially marked are those of language acquisition and developmental language impairment.

The limitations of a view of language restricted to context-independent systems is illustrated clinically by the client who "has a relatively good command of grammatical and lexical patterns of language but who is unable to use these structures appropriately in speech situations and who does not interact naturally with others" (Crystal, 1985a, p. 10). The correct use of the formal systems of syntax and semantics does not of itself ensure that communication will be appropriate and effective. Such effectiveness is dependent on the relevance of what is said to the situational, the social and the linguistic context.

While pragmatics can therefore be described as the appropriate use of language in context, this description is too imprecise to provide a framework for principled assessment and remediation. "The diversity of possible definitions and lack of clear boundaries" in the field has been discussed by Levinson in a major work on pragmatics (Levinson, 1983, p. 5). The problem of determining boundaries in relation to other aspects of language and communication has been a recurring one in attempts to delineate the parameters of pragmatics for clinical use. The problem is of pressing practical concern since in recent years speech and language therapists have increasingly been called upon to work with people who have adequate formal language skills, but whose verbal communication is, in varying degrees, inappropriate.

In a recent summary of the issues involved in the assessment of pragmatic skills, McTear and Conti-Ramsden (1989) conclude that pragmatics involves the three following aspects of language use

1. the study of discourse and conversational skills.

2. the study of the relationship between pragmatics and other levels of language.

3. The study of situational determinants of the use of language.

The first and third of these aspects will be discussed below in relation to the problem of determining the parameters of pragmatics. The relationship between pragmatics and other levels of language, an aspect which McTear and Conti-Ramsden comment has been little addressed, is considered later in this chapter (1.6), following discussion of assessment procedures.


Discourse is concerned with stretches of language, especially spoken language, which go beyond the sentence level and constitute a recognisable communicative event. A conversation is one such event (Crystal, 1985b). Since whether some aspect of communication is appropriate or inappropriate is dependent on its relevance to context, pragmatic assessment needs to take place within the framework of a whole discourse, and not within the framework of individual units, such as sentences, which have been isolated from context.

Pragmatic skills are therefore concerned with discourse. However, not all discourse or conversational skills are pragmatic. Story telling, for example, is a discourse skill (McTear and Conti-Ramsden, 1989) and aspects of telling a story, such as specifying topic and establishing referent, are clearly pragmatic (Zubrick & Olley, 1987). Other aspects, however, are not. These include the "ability to focus on a character and the character's motivations, goals, plans and actions" (Hedberg, 1986, p. 59) and the use of a concept of theme (Yoshinaga-Itano, 1986). To tell a story with an immature or poorly developed use of theme or of characterisation is not in itself to use language inappropriately. Story telling skills of this kind are related to the level of sophistication of the narrative construction, rather than to any potential inappropriateness.

The assumption that all discourse level skills are pragmatic is a potential source of confusion when attempting to delineate pragmatic deficit and can lead to errors in assessment. This can be illustrated by reference to two procedures designed to assess discourse level skills, Dialogue with Preschoolers (Blank and Franklin, 1980) and The Clinical Discourse Analysis (Damico, 1985).

Dialogue with Pre-Schoolers, a cognitively-based system of assessment, looks at the utterances of young children and their conversational partners in terms of the level of conceptualisation of the ideas conveyed, arranged on a scale of increasing abstraction. Conceptual complexity is characterised as an "aspect of language functioning that seems essential to effective skill in discourse" (Blank & Franklin, 1980, p. 128). Utterances are coded on a complexity scale of 1 to 4 and also in terms of appropriateness of response. Rating on the appropriateness scale is determined by whether or not a response is "invalid, irrelevant or insufficient to meet the constraints established by the speaker/initiator's utterance" (p. 138), such responses being designated as inadequate. The terms 'appropriate' and 'adequate' are thus used interchangably, implying that what is inadequate in terms of conceptual complexity is also inappropriate in pragmatic terms. The manual to an adaptation of Dialogue with Pre-Schoolers for use with very young children (Conti-Ramsden & Friel-Patti, 1982) makes this point explicitly when it states that adequate responses sustain the conversation whereas inadequate responses break it down (and are thus inappropriate pragmatically).

Examination of the illustrative data used in the original presentation of the system (Blank, Rose, & Berlin, 1978) shows, however, that a response can be inadequate conceptually yet at the same time be appropriate pragmatically. One illustration given is of an adult holding up a small weight next to an evenly balanced toy scale, pointing to one side and asking, "What will happen to the scale if I put another one here?" Inadequate responses include "It's red" (associated), "I got one of those at home" (irrelevant), "It will go up" (invalid) and "I don't know" (p. 36). While clearly inadequate conceptually, the last two responses are not inappropriate. They maintain topic and invite an explanatory reply from the adult. Irrelevant and associated responses do tend to be inappropriate in that they frequently fail to maintain topic or to enable the listener to follow the speaker's line of thought. A connection can be seen here between a child's difficulty with the conceptual complexity of a topic and the impairment of pragmatic competence. However replies such as this child's, "It's red" or "I got one at home" can, given appropriate intonation and context, function to communicate something along the lines of, "I don't know the answer to that but I m willing to carry on talking about it." A response may thus be inaccurate, or even irrelevant, in terms of the logical progression of an argument and yet contribute appropriately to the conversational interaction. There are, in other words, conversationally appropriate ways of handling failure to understand.

It is also possible for a conceptually adequate response to be inappropriate pragmatically. Into this category fall responses which are accurate in content but inappropriate stylistically with regard to the social relationship between the speakers (for example those not using appropriate politeness forms). Also included are accurate responses which violate the turn-taking rule of conciseness by being 'over-informative . This is a deficit which many observers have noted in children with language impairment, especially of the type described as autistic (Faye & Schuler, 1980; McTear, 1984) and of the type described as semantic-pragmatic Bishop & Adams, 1989).

When using this assessment procedure it is therefore misleading to regard conceptual adequacy and pragmatic appropriateness as identical.

Damico's Clinical Discourse Analysis was drawn up by using transcripts of communicatively impaired children to identify those errors which were "most apt to interfere with discourse" and which were also "readily identifiable by professionals" (Damico, 1985, p. 171). These potential errors were then organised within the framework provided by Grice's Cooperative Principle (Grice. 1975). The Cooperative Principle is based on four maxims requiring contributions to a conversation to be informative (maxim of quantity), truthful (maxim of quality). relevant (maxim of relevance) and clear (maxim of manner). It can. however, be queried whether these maxims, in particular the maxim of quality, provide a suitable basis for a pragmatic assessment, as opposed to an assessment of discourse. The maxim of quality, under which the error of "message inaccuracy" is placed in Damico s Analysis, requires that contributions to a conversation should not be knowingly false or lack adequate evidence. Given the realities of human interaction. these are unconvincing criteria for the appropriate use of language in context and pose particular problems in relation to young children, whose powers of reasoning and of discriminating between fact and fantasy are immature. That a proposition is invalid, poorly argued or a downright lie is a legitimate concern when analysing discourse but does not necessarily imply that the speaker is using language inappropriately.

Pragmatic assessment is thus carried out in relation to the linguistic content of specific discourse, such as a conversation, but involves only those aspects of discourse which are concerned with appropriateness.


The use of language is appropriate or inappropriate not only in relation to the linguistic context of an interaction but also in relation to the situational context, both physical and social.

The immediate physical environment affects paralinguistic and non-verbal aspects of an interaction, such as vocal intensity and physical proximity, and verbal aspects, such as in what way it is appropriate to make reference to people and objects that are physically present.

The social situation in which an interaction takes place includes both the immediate setting (involving considerations such as the social nature of the occasion and the subject matter of the exchange) and the broader social context (involving considerations such as the relative status of the participants and the cultural norms to which they subscribe). Such considerations influence, among many other factors. the information and attitudes which participants can assume to be shared between them, the type of topic it is appropriate to introduce, and conventions regarding such matters as eye-gaze, physical contact and the way in which requests for clarification are made.

Language may therefore be used inappropriately because one or more of the partners in an interaction is uninformed about the social norms of the setting or the social role of another participant. The situation may also arise where a participant is unwilling to conform to such norms. This may be for reasons as diverse as emotional disturbance or as considered opposition to an authority system regarded as unjust. While it may be seen as socially inappropriate, such intentional non-cooperation with the expectations of a conversational partner is problematic (although potentially informative) in terms of pragmatic analysis. Failure to comply with what is regarded as socially acceptable behaviour is likely to affect a child's communicative intentions but these intentions may then be carried out appropriately. Intentional insolence, for example, may be appropriately achieved from the pragmatic standpoint although seen as inappropriate socially. For this reason it is usually stipulated that in pragmatic assessment interchanges should be used which are positive or neutral and where it can be assumed "that both partners expect to engage in cooperative discourse" (Prutting & Kirchner 1987, p. 108). In general terms. the part played by situational determinants in any apparent pragmatic breakdown can be minimised by ensuring that the interaction used in assessment takes place between facilitative partners in a social context familiar to the participants.

While social context is thus an essential factor in pragmatic assessment social competence does not only involve pragmatic considerations. This can be illustrated by reference to a procedure for assessing social communication. The Classroom Communication Checklist (Ripich & Spinelli. 1985a). Ripich and Spinelli take an ethnographic approach. In this approach the focus is on the nature of the interaction and by what means, (rather than with what frequency) children achieve particular communicative goals. One may also choose to take a focus of this kind in making a pragmatic analysis. However, while a pragmatic analysis is concerned with appropriateness within the context of a discourse, the ethnography of communication is concerned with the organisation of speech communities as determined by socio-cultural factors (Williamson, 1991).

The therapist using the ethnographically based Classroom Communication Checklist is required to give the child an effectiveness rating in a number of communication areas: participation, soliciting attention, paying attention, questioning, appropriateness, descriptive ability and speech-language abilities. Ineffectiveness, in terms of the norms of the particular classroom setting, in any of these areas is identified and examples are noted, together with specific contextual information. This information may include comment on those with whom the child is communicating: for example, "the teacher interacts appropriately but not enthusiastically" (Ripich & Spinelli, 1985a. p. 210). Styles socially penalising to the child, such as timidity or aggressiveness, are identified and desired behaviours are then specified. Socially undesirable behaviour does not, however, necessarily involve a pragmatic breakdown. It is possible to use language appropriately in order to communicate unenthusiastically or timidly or aggressively. The consideration of social communication is thus not limited to pragmatic skills but places communicative appropriateness within the broader context of the child s social competence.

Pragmatic competence is thus an aspect of the broader areas both of social competence and of competence in discourse.



The difficulty of defining the boundaries of pragmatics led in the early nineteen eighties to a situation where there was a clinical demand for assessment and remediation of pragmatic impairment but an absence of the theoretical coherence necessary to provide an overview of the area. (Crystal. 1985a; McTear, 1985a). Therapists therefore lacked a framework within which to identify pragmatic difficulties and to analyse what processes within a conversation gave rise to them. (Damico, 1985). They were thus without a satisfactory basis for principled and effective therapy. There were a number of responses to this situation which are outlined in the following discussion.


It is not the function of standardised tests to give a complete picture of an area of linguistic functioning nor of an individual's strengths and weaknesses within it. Furthermore, there are particular problems with the use of standardised tests in pragmatic assessment. These relate to the interactive nature of pragmatic competence and the necessity for it to be assessed within the context of an entire and naturally occurring discourse. Standardised tests rely on the elicitation within a predetermined context of a series of discrete responses and therefore "focus on restricted aspects of language which are amenable to such testing." (McTear & Conti-Ramsden, 1989. p. 165). Standardised tests of pragmatic functioning (Bray & Wiig, 1987; Prinz & Werner, 1987; Shulman, 1985) are suited to checking those aspects of interaction which are amenable to "a uniform and standardised method of eliciting" (Bray & Wiig 1987, publisher's introduction). Prominent among these is the appropriate use of speech acts, or communicative intentions, such as informing, denying and requesting. Other aspects of pragmatics, including selecting, introducing and changing topic, and using cohesive devices to establish relatedness and unity in the discourse, involve speakers in initiation and active collaboration and are therefore not well suited to elicitation in a standardised context. It can be argued that for a complete clinical picture to be obtained it may sometimes be necessary to elicit information about functioning on particular parameters, doing so in as naturalistic a context as possible. (Roth & Spekman 1984). However to provide an overview of pragmatic skills what is required is the application of a comprehensive organisational framework to naturally occurring language.


Lacking a clearly defined framework within which to view pragmatic impairment, one clinical response has been to draw up check lists either of what the compilers have found to be the most commonly occurring problems affecting the use of language among clients (Johnson Johnston & Weinrich, 1984) or of a broad range of clinically identified problems which appear to fall within the area (Haines 1985). Such lists aim to aid the therapist in identifying common difficulties and do not set out to be comprehensive or to determine what the parameters of pragmatics are.

An interesting adaptation of this approach was used in a research study by Bishop and Adams (1989) in which the authors and a third judge independently scanned transcripts of conversations of a group of language impaired children and a group of controls and identified utterances they judged to be inappropriate. The aim was to discover which aspects of children's conversations led an observer to judge the child's utterances to be inappropriate. The judgment of inappropriate was made on the basis of previous joint discussion of other transcripts and by following the general guide-line that inappropriate utterances should be associated with "a sense of oddness and disruption of the normal conversational flow" (p. 242). An adequate inter-rater reliability was obtained and utterances marked as inappropriate were categorised. In making this categorisation Bishop and Adams identified "a wide range of semantic. syntactic and pragmatic peculiarities . .. as leading to a sense of inappropriacy" (p. 241).


When a number of difficulties of the kind noted in the lists discussed above are found to commonly co-occur in individual children. they can be grouped together under the heading of a syndrome or disorder. The term semantic-pragmatic syndrome was coined by Rapin and Allen (1983: Rapin, 1987) (who were working within a predominantly medical model) in application to children who showed both "impaired comprehension of connected discourse" and "a severe impairment in the ability to encode meaning relevant to the conversational situation" (Rapin & Allen. 1983, p. 174). This description was appropriate to a group of children who. from the early nineteen-eighties on, were increasingly being referred for therapy. In the U.K. in particular, the term semantic-pragmatic disorder was adopted and applied both in theoretical studies (Bishop and Rosenbloom, 1987; Bishop, 1989) and in therapy (Smedley, 1989). Its widespread use may be seen as a reflection of the theoretical difficulty of making a distinction between pragmatics and semantics, or, broadly speaking, between language use and language meaning (Karmiloff-Smith 1979; Silverstein, 1985; Van Langendonck, 1984). The characteristics noted as features of the disorder include fluent speech with adequate articulation, verbosity. verbal comprehension deficits. lack of semantic specificity, impairment in the ability to take turns and to maintain a topic in discourse and a tendency to give over-literal or tangential responses (Adams & Bishop. 1989; Rapin. 1987). The term semantic-pragmatic disorder has provided a focus for discussion among those working with children to whom it can be applied (Haines, 1985) but has at the same time been criticised as unhelpful (Crystal, 1985a). The main basis of this criticism is that the characteristics listed cannot be related in any systematic way to each other or to conversational competence since they are not set within the context of any clear view of what that competence is.


In the absence of an overview of pragmatic functioning within which breakdowns in communication can be analysed the therapist is in the position of identifying individual types of difficulty and planning remediation to address each of these in isolation. An illustration of this situation is provided in a case study of D. a seven-year-old pupil in a school for language-disordered children (Jones. Smedley & Jennings 1986). D. often made inappropriate use of general semantic terms, such as the verbs 'do', 'have', 'put', 'get' and go'. For example, talking about Father Christmas D. said "and he take the barrel to do lots of presents." (p. 159). He thus showed the lack of semantic specificity listed as one of the characteristics of semantic-pragmatic disorder. An example is given of a therapy situation set up to show D. that general semantic terms may be inappropriate.

"D. was shown a picture of several boys who were either riding, walking, running, skipping (etc.) to school. The request 'show me the boy who is going to school' demonstrated to D. the inadequacy of the verb 'going' in this context, and led him to thinking of 'better' (more specific) words."

(Jones. Smedley & Jennings; 1986, p. 160).

D. was thus effectively enabled to grasp that the general semantic term going was not appropriate here and to develop a strategy of finding 'better' or more specific words. However, this strategy would not be appropriate in all contexts. Take the hypothetical situation where D. is telling an acquaintance about his younger sister who has just started school, and says "Now that my sister is five, she's walking to school." The acquaintance is likely to understand from this not that D's sister has just started school but that she has just started walking to school. In this context the less specific word going' is better than the more specific word 'walking and the application of a taught strategy of using greater semantic specificity would result in a breakdown in communication. It can thus be seen that there is a need for therapy to go beyond working on individual pragmatic problems, such as the use of over-general semantic terms to an approach which locates such problems within an overall view of pragmatic competence.



A number of assessment approaches have been developed with the aim of providing an organisational framework or descriptive taxonomy. which meets "the need to determine what the pragmatic aspects of language are and how these aspects should be organised for clinical and research purposes" (Prutting & Kirchner, 1987 p. 106). The main features of these frameworks are shown in Table 1 (Bedrosian, 1985; Donahue, 1985; McTear 1985b; McTear & Conti-Ramsden 1989; Prutting & Kirchner, 1987; Ripich & Spinelli. 1985b; Roth & Spekman, 1984). The schemes of Bedrosian and of Ripich and Spinelli relate to discourse but are included here because they are confined to the pragmatic aspects of discourse as discussed above.

Prutting and Kirchner discuss the properties which should characterise an effective system of classification, or protocol, of this kind. As well as being comprehensive and well-motivated by the research literature the parameters of such a protocol need to be mutually exclusive and to relate in a consistent way to each other and to pragmatic competence as a whole. Such a protocol should also enable useful evaluation to be carried out of each of its parameters in a sample of conversational speech. A Pragmatic Protocol, intended to meet these criteria, was developed by Prutting (Prutting, 1982; Prutting & Kirchner, 1983, 1987).





Communicative Parameters

(Verbal Aspects)





Variety Pair Analysis

(taking of listener & speaker role)









(includes repair)






a) Specificity/ Accuracy

b) Cohesion






Adaptation to style and status of listener


Pragmatic Abilities of Children

Levels of Analysis







Social Organisation of Discourse



Presupposition - the ability to take on the perspective of the communicative partner

McTEAR (1985, 1989)

Checklist of Conversational Ability





Attention Getting & Directing




Presupposition drawing on background & shared knowledge

DONAHUE (1985)

Inter-related Dimensions of Pragmatic Competence



Repertoire of Communicative Intentions



Co-operative Conversation


how to how to introduce and manage the monitor orderly exchange topics of conversational turns

  Ability to produce and understand propositions by taking into account what information is shared between conversational partners


Area: Discourse



Communicative Intentions



Topic Continuation



Turn Allocation and Attention



Coherence and Repair


Discourse Skills




Communicative Intentions



Topic Maintenance includes Repair/ Revision







Eye-contact for purposes of attention getting





The Pragmatic Protocol (see Appendix A) was the result of a number of years theoretical and clinical work by Prutting and Kirchner. An earlier version (Prutting & Kirchner, 1983) was organised according to a speech act model (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969). While acknowledging the importance of Speech Act theory as a paradigm from which to view pragmatics, Prutting and Kirchner (1987) found that the speech act categories utterance act, propositional act and illocutionary/ perlocutionary act were not sufficiently distinct to provide a basis for a descriptive taxonomy meeting the criteria outlined above. Prutting subsequently constructed the scheme on which her Protocol is based and which is divided into three aspects: Verbal, Paralinguistic and Nonverbal. Prutting describes the paralinguistic aspect (covering intelligibility and prosodics) and the nonverbal aspect (covering kinesics and proxemics) as supplementing and supporting the verbal aspect. There are also occasions when one of the parameters of these supplementary aspects, in particular gesture, may be used to replace a verbal parameter.

In the other five overviews of pragmatics shown in outline in Table 1, paralinguistic and nonverbal aspects are also regarded as supplementary to verbal aspects. An exception is Bedrosian s inclusion of the nonverbal parameter of eye gaze, when used for the purpose of attention-getting, as a basic rather than a supplementary category. Attention-getting can also be achieved by paralinguistic means, such as raising one's voice, or by verbal means, such as saying, "Listen". Bedrosian's restriction of attention getting to eye gaze alone appears to reflect the particular problems of the intellectually disabled, for use with whom his check list is primarily intended. McTear also includes getting and directing attention in his check list but locates these in the section dealing with turn-taking. In the Pragmatic Protocol the importance of attention getting and attention directing is no more than hinted at (this hint being contained in the indication that all non-verbal aspects should be used appropriately to regulate discourse turns). This omission on Prutting's part may be partly explained by the fact that her Protocol is intended for use with adults and with children aged five years and older. In contrast, McTear is mainly concerned with very young children, whose acquisition of attentional skills is of considerable relevance to their developing capacity to take part in conversations.

The various schemes outlined in Table 1 demonstrate a congruence which reflects their common basis in extensive reviews of the relevant literature (McTear & Conti-Ramsden, 1989). Table 1 presents an overview of the parameters of pragmatics which integrates these schemes and which consists of five distinct but inter-related areas. These can be summarised

as follows:


1. Appropriate use of Speech Acts.

2. Appropriate topic management (selection, introduction, maintenance and change of topic).

3. Appropriate use of turn-taking.

4. The use of identifiable and appropriately specific lexical items and of cohesive devices which link the discourse together in a way which is comprehensible to the conversational partners.

5. Adaptation to the style and status of one's conversational partner(s).

As can be seen by reference to Table 1. it is the Pragmatic Protocol which provides the organising principles applied to weld all the other schemes of pragmatic functioning into a single comprehensive framework. One significant modification (discussed in 3.3 below) has however, been made by the current author. This is the specification that lexical items should be not only identifiable but also appropriately specific.

The framework of pragmatic functioning provided by the Pragmatic Protocol is comprehensive in its overview and clear in the definition given of each of its parameters (McTear & Conti-Ramsden, 1989). In justifying the use of this Protocol as a theoretical basis it is, however, necessary to respond to criticisms which have been made of its potential practical application. It has been queried whether the Protocol can elucidate the relationship of its parameters to each other (McTear & Conti-Ramsden, 1989) and whether it can be effectively used to pin-point and analyse pragmatic problems requiring therapy (Bishop & Adams, 1989; McTear & Conti-Ramsden, 1989). These are crucial considerations, since a theoretical framework of this kind must be called into question if it does not give rise to valid assessment procedures for language-impaired populations and to effective remedial approaches. It can only do this if it enables one to determine what is and what is not a pragmatic deficit. The effectiveness of the Pragmatic Protocol has to be judged on the basis of its capacity to clarify the elusive relationship between pragmatics and other aspects of language.



While the comprehensiveness of the Pragmatic Protocol ensures that instances of the inappropriate use of language in context can be identified and categorised, this does not in itself resolve the question raised at the beginning of this chapter of the relationship between pragmatics and other levels of language. The difficulties associated with uncertainty about this relationship can be illustrated by reference to two discussions of failure to specify referent adequately. Specifying referent is listed in the fourth section of Prutting's Protocol on the parameter Specificity/Accuracy.

Johnston (1985) discusses problems with "the mechanisms of reference specification" experienced by a nine-year-old child (p. 89). This child frequently used markers of definiteness, such as pronouns and the article 'the', in contexts where it was not possible for his conversational partner to work out to what he was referring. For example, he referred to "those Froot Loops", although Froot Loops had not previously been mentioned in the conversation and there were none present. Two possible interpretations of the child's deficiency in reference specification are put forward. He may have misinterpreted his conversational partner's need to know in which case the deficit is one of social cognition. On the other hand he may have been "unable to discover the basic discourse categories that govern the selection of definite versus indefinite forms", in which case the problem is an example of a "true pragmatic disorder" (p. 90).

The second example occurs in a discussion by Garman (1989) of Fletcher's analysis of the low utilisation by language impaired children of lexically specific adverbials of time (seasons, festivals etc.) Two possible explanations are proposed. It may be that the language impaired children are limited in their ability to organise information in which case the deficit is semantic. Alternatively it may be that these children are not aware of the need to provide their conversational partners with an explicit time reference. If this is the case, the deficit is pragmatic.

The view taken in both these cases is that an instance of insufficient specificity which produces an effect of inappropriateness is not necessarily a pragmatic deficit. The deficit is viewed as pragmatic if the skill in which the speaker is deficient is judged to be a pragmatic skill, but not if it is judged to be a skill at some other level. Difficulty can arise in identifying what skill is involved, and also in determining into which category, or level, a given skill falls. In the examples given in the previous two paragraphs, interpreting a conversational partner's need to know is seen by one commentator as a pragmatic skill but by the other as a skill of social cognition. Other instances of uncertainty about whether or not a skill is pragmatic are readily available. The situation where a child's difficulty with conceptually complex subject matter may lead to a failure to maintain topic, or to a failure to make clear the speaker's line of thinking, has been discussed above (1.2). Referring to absent objects or people requires the competent use of relative clauses and tense markers, and an inappropriate reference in such a case may therefore be due to a lack of syntactic skill. A further illustration of the problem occurs in Bishop and Adam's (1989) study of judgments of inappropriateness, which was discussed above (1.4.2). In this study Bishop and Adams identified not only pragmatic, but also semantic and syntactic peculiarities in conversation, as leading to a sense of inappropriateness.

The problem thus arises that an identifiable deficit on one of the parameters of pragmatics may apparently be not a pragmatic deficit at all, but a deficit at some other level of language.


There is particular difficulty in determining whether a given instance of the inappropriate use of language in context can indeed be regarded as pragmatic, if one adopts what is generally referred to as the narrow view of pragmatics (McTear & Conti-Ramsden, 1989; Prutting & Kirchner, 1987). This view takes pragmatics to be a distinct component of language, with the implication that a breakdown in communication will take place either at the pragmatic level or at one of a number of other separate levels, including the phonological, the syntactic, and the semantic.

The broad view of pragmatics, on the other hand, emphasises the way in which pragmatic considerations may be integrated into other levels of language so that, for example, the development and use of syntactic devices such as relative clauses may be the result of an awareness of their communicative function. Seen from this viewpoint, a breakdown in communication is pragmatic if it is the result of a speaker's failure to grasp the communicative function of a particular linguistic feature.

Seen in terms of the broad view, pragmatics does not constitute a distinct level of language but pervades language use at all levels (McTear 1985a). The broad view resembles the narrow. however. in working on the basis of a specifically pragmatic set of abilities which is distinct from abilities at other levels of language.


A third approach is proposed by Prutting and Kirchner and described by them as the pragmatics-as-cause-effect point of view (Prutting & Kirchner. 1987). Pragmatics is seen in terms of the effects of the use of language on the participants in an act of communication (Crystal, 1985b). From this viewpoint any instance of inappropriateness on the Pragmatic Protocol constitutes a pragmatic deficit and any aspect of linguistic or cognitive competence may be responsible. The existence of pragmatic skills is not denied. The approach is consistent for example with the view put forward above that maintaining topic is a pragmatic skill whereas arguing logically is not. However maintaining topic is a pragmatic skill because, whatever the means employed, a pragmatic end is achieved. A pragmatic act is pragmatic not because it involves the exercise of a specifically pragmatic ability nor because the speaker is motivated by specifically pragmatic considerations but because the act produces a communicative effect which is either appropriate or inappropriate. For example, each of the semantic and syntactic peculiarities identified by Bishop and Adams (1989) as leading to a sense of inappropriateness can be located, according to the communicative effect involved, on the pragmatic parameter of Cohesion or on that of Specificity/Accuracy. From the pragmatics-as-cause-effect standpoint there is no exclusively pragmatic set of abilities which have to be distinguished from abilities at other levels of language. As Prutting and Kirchner (1987) express it, "the concern is for the communicative effects of various linguistic and cognitive deficits on the interaction" (p. 105).

Another feature of the pragmatics-as-cause-effect position is that it is compatible with an inter-personal analysis of conversation, in which a pragmatic deficit is not seen solely as a deficit in the speaker. The fact that responsibility for breakdowns in communication is shared between speakers and listeners is perhaps more evident when studying conversations between linguistically competent adults (Goodman, 1987) than when observing those whose language is known to be impaired or immature. In discussing the Pragmatic Protocol, Prutting and Kirchner (1987) focus on the language-impaired partner alone, for example in referring to such children as "exhibiting pragmatic deficits" and in listing "appropriate behaviors", such as "the ability to be specific" (p. 118). Nevertheless, in their discussion they emphasise that the nature of the Protocol requires that results are "evaluated relative to the contributions made by both speaker and listener" (p. 112).

The evaluation of the contribution of all participants in a conversation is not a feature of schemes which define pragmatics in terms of the abilities of the individual. As can be seen from comparing the examples shown in Table 2, the rating on such schemes most commonly records whether given pragmatic skills are present or absent and how frequently the individual concerned uses them. Some measure of complexity may also be applied. In contrast the pragmatics-as-cause-effect approach is concerned with the appropriateness or inappropriateness of communicative acts and has the potential to evaluate the contribution to this effect of both (or all) conversational partners.


Speech Acts are used as an illustration


McTEAR (1985)










Initiation Type

Question/Request for Action/Statement



Record made of behaviours of an individual










Not Applicable

8. Able to initiate questions

a) Requests for Information

b) Requests for Repetition

or Clarification

c) Requests for Action

d) Requests for Permission







Record made of skills of an individual


(communicative acts)






No Opportunity to Observe


Examples and Comments

Variety of Speech Acts

(...what one can do with language such as comment assert, request, promise and so forth.)




Record made of communicative acts which are seen as mutually constructed by the conversational partners

In viewing appropriateness in terms of communicative effect rather than in terms of the skills of an individual speaker, the pragmatics-as-cause-effect approach thus resolves two major dilemmas inherent in the other approaches discussed.

The first of these dilemmas is the uncertainty and conflict of views which may arise over whether a particular deficit is or is not pragmatic. For example, when the approach centred on individual skills is taken, it can (as we have seen above) be difficult to determine whether a failure in 'reference specification' is a semantic deficit, a deficit in social cognition or a pragmatic deficit. However when the cause-effect approach is taken, there is no such ambiguity. Since the communicative effect of a failure to establish referent is one of inappropriateness, the deficit is pragmatic.

Secondly the pragmatics as cause-effect approach enables a judgment of inappropriateness to be made on the basis of the joint contributions of all participants in a conversation. Thus any communicative breakdown can be analysed on an interpersonal basis, rather than on a narrowly intrapersonal one. (McTear & Conti-Ramsden, 1989).

The Pragmatic Protocol thus provides not only a comprehensive overview of the parameters of pragmatics but also an effective approach to the identification of pragmatic deficits, and will be used as a framework for the investigation undertaken in the current study.



Prutting's Pragmatic Protocol is intended for use both clinically and in research. The thirty parameters of the Protocol are evaluated on a 15 minute sample of spontaneous communication. A parameter is marked as inappropriate if it is used in such a way as to interfere with communication on one or more occasions during the sample. On the basis of this evaluation, a profile of strengths and weaknesses is drawn up, revealing a pattern of pragmatic deficits. Prutting and Kirchner draw attention to the possibility that inappropriateness on some parameters, or combinations of parameters, may be more penalizing than inappropriateness on others.

In research, profiles on the Pragmatic Protocol can be used in investigating which patterns of pragmatic strength and weakness are associated with subjects in particular clinical groups, these groups being defined in terms of cognitive and linguistic abilities.

Profiles are not in themselves a basis for therapy but are intended to guide the clinician to clusters of parameters which require detailed assessment. In spite of the Protocol's potential as a tool for inter-personal analysis, the guide-lines suggested for this detailed assessment concentrate on the contribution of the language-impaired partner alone. Having identified the parameters on which deficits occur in the communication sample, the therapist should then ascertain "whether this individual frequently displayed this type of behavior" (p. 114) across a variety of contexts. This information can then be evaluated in relation to cognitive or linguistic deficits (for example word-retrieval problems) which may be relevant, and within the overall picture of pragmatic strengths and weaknesses which the individual's profile provides.


As proposed by Prutting and Kirchner, the detailed assessment of pragmatic parameters which have been judged deficient consists of gathering more extensive information about how frequently such deficits occur. However the framework of pragmatic competence provided by the Protocol can, in addition, form the basis of a detailed assessment of another kind. Such an assessment would consist of close textual and interactional analysis of transcribed conversations in order to determine how the parameter under consideration is utilized. Analyses of this type have the advantage of revealing not only patterns of deficit but also the processes that give rise to the pragmatic effects concerned. For example, in assessment and therapy in a case such as that of D. (discussed in 1.4.4.), the factors involved in the child's inappropriate use of general semantic terms would be the subject of a detailed analysis, each instance being examined within the context of the transcribed conversation. In addition, comparisons could be made between all those occasions in the conversation where the use of an appropriate degree of semantic specificity was required.

Close analysis of transcribed conversations also has a significant role in qualitative research. Because it traces processes at work in a conversation, such analysis can provide information about the interaction between the parameters of a pragmatic protocol and address such questions as, "Does a problem in topic maintenance affect turn-taking contingency?" (McTear & Conti-Ramsden, 1989, p. 158). Analysis of transcriptions provides a complementary approach to that followed in statistical studies which investigate what clusters of pragmatic effects are associated with a variety of clinically identified groups. In using transcripts to make a detailed examination of conversations, one is able to take a particular pragmatic effect as a starting point, trace how it arises, and identify linguistic, cognitive and social difficulties involved in this process. The aim of identifying which pragmatic deficits are typical of particular clinical populations is thus extended to an investigation of why this should be so.


Prutting and Kirchner (1987), in a study undertaken to test the utility of Prutting's Pragmatic Protocol completed the Protocol from observation of the spontaneous conversation of members of six different diagnostic groups: a group of language-disordered children aged 7 to 10 years; a group of children with articulation disorders; a group of children developing language normally and three groups of adults. These conversations were judged on each of the thirty parameters of the Protocol as Appropriate, Inappropriate or Not Observed. A judgment of Inappropriate was made whenever a contribution to the conversation on any given parameter detracted from the communicative exchange and in so doing penalised the individual concerned. Since the present study is concerned with children only, the results for Prutting and Kirchner's adult groups will not be discussed, except to note that 100% of the group who had suffered left hemisphere damage were judged inappropriate on the parameter Specificity/Accuracy.

TABLE 3. Percentage of children whose contribution to the conversation was judged Inappropriate.



% children whose contribution to the conversation was judged Inappropriate











Prutting and Kirchner calculated the percentage of children in the language-disordered group whose contributions to the conversation were judged inappropriate on each of the thirty parameters of the Protocol and drew up the ranking shown in Table 3. The findings for this group were in contrast to those relating to the group of children with normally developing language and to the group with articulation disorders. In both these groups the contributions of fewer than 5% of the children were judged inappropriate on the parameter of Specificity/ Accuracy or on that of Cohesion. The parameters of Specificity/ Accuracy and of Cohesion are grouped together by Prutting and Kirchner (Table 1) and are closely related (2.3.1 below).

Deficit on the parameter Specificity/Accuracy was thus found by Prutting and Kirchner (1987) to be more prevalent among the language impaired children than deficit on any other pragmatic parameter. Specificity/Accuracy comes under the fourth of the five areas of pragmatic competence shown in Table 1. Prutting and Kirchner entitle this area: Lexical Selection/Use Across Speech Acts and it has been described above (1.5.2.) as covering: "The use of identifiable and appropriately specific lexical items and of cohesive devices which link the discourse together in a way which is comprehensible to the conversational partner(s)". The parameter Specificity/Accuracy relates to the first part of this description which concerns the use of a referring expression to establish referent. The concept of the establishment of referent as one of the parameters of pragmatics was introduced in 1.6 and is examined in detail in Chapter 2.

The selection of the children in the language-disordered group investigated by Prutting and Kirchner (1987) was made on a general diagnostic classification. The children performed at least 1.5 standard deviations below the mean on a minimum of two standardised tests in one or more of the following areas: morphology, syntax, and semantics. No distinction was made between those with verbal comprehension difficulties and those without. While the establishment of referent was clearly an area of difficulty for a higher percentage of these children than any other pragmatic parameter, there was a large range of variability within the group. Prutting and Kirchner suggest that if the group had been divided into subgroups, with a number of different clinical profiles, each might have been found to be associated with a distinct pattern of pragmatic deficit. There is thus a need for further investigations along these lines, involving identified subgroups of language-disordered children.

The small scale pilot study reported in this thesis looks at the occurrence of unestablished referent in the conversations of a clinically identified subgroup of language impaired children. These children had been described on referral for therapy as inappropriate in their conversational interaction, and scored at least 1.5 standard deviations below the mean on a standardised test of verbal comprehension. In keeping with the dual approach advocated above the study looks both at the frequency with which unestablished referent occurs and at how it arises within the children's conversations.

The aims of the study will be presented at the end of Chapter 2, following a detailed examination of the pragmatic parameter which it investigates the establishment of referent.

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