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As adjectives in general usage (not in jargon terminology), are the words pragmatic and practical synonymous? If not, how do their meanings and proper usage differ?

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    'Cognitive synonymy' is usually met with in the question "Are x and y 'true synonyms' (ie completely interchangeable)?". We've found perhaps 1 pair of examples here. With your pair, the term 'pragmatic marker' doesn't accept the swap. A 'pragmatic joke' is unacceptable. 'Pragmatic' can have the different denotation 'pertaining to affairs of state' (and a weasel use of this has been made) ... – Edwin Ashworth Nov 19 '15 at 16:28
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    @EdwinAshworth: The term "practical joke" is more of an idiom or phrasal noun, don't you think? It has a meaning completely different from "a joke that is practical" (in the same sense as "a plan that is practical"). – jdmc Nov 19 '15 at 18:39
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    And "pragmatic marker" is a linguistics jargon term that would never be encountered in general usage, and therefore outside the scope of my question. – jdmc Nov 19 '15 at 18:46
  • @Rathony: Sorry that you overlooked the explicit qualification "in general usage, not jargon" that appeared in the question as originally written. I've refactored the question to make this more readily apparent. – jdmc Nov 19 '15 at 18:58
  • And you edited the question just to remove the period from "vs."? Eyeroll. – jdmc Nov 19 '15 at 19:01
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Let me start with my general sense based on usage that I've read and heard. To me, pragmatic refers to how something is realistic, sensible, and deliberately so. Practical is similar, but has more to do with actually doing something, and being effective. Also, pragmatic is more likely to be an attribute of a person. Practical could equally be a person or an idea.

Let's compare the definitions (from Merriam-Webster):

  • pragmatic: dealing with the problems that exist in a specific situation in a reasonable and logical way instead of depending on ideas and theories.

  • practical: relating to what is real rather than to what is possible or imagined / likely to succeed and reasonable to do or use / appropriate or suited for actual use.

So here we have a contrast between an idea of being "logical" (pragmatic) versus being "real" (practical).

It's also worth noting that the adjective pragmatic is also related to the philosophical idea of pragmatism Wikipedia, where the noun practicality clearly doesn't contain the same connotation.

For this reason alone, the words are not true cognitive synonyms. At best, one might consider certain usages/definitions of these words to be cognitive synonyms of each other, but in any event there are counter examples. Practicality/Pragmatism is just one example. A practical joke (*pragmatic joke) is another. (Thanks Edwin Ashworth for this latter example.)

In terms of usage where one is clearly more appropriate, I would consider the following sentences:

  • She loved him and needed to see him again, and so she did the only practical thing she could do: she sold her car and bought a plane ticket to go visit him.

  • Her practical implementation of the theory formed the basis for further research.

In the first example, the woman is acting (at least in part) out of something more than just logic. She is taking real action, even if it's not pragmatic. In the second, its the "real" aspect of the implementation (versus theory) that makes "practical" the better word choice.

As a side note...this doesn't really answer your question, but it's interesting to note that practical is used dramatically more frequently than pragmatic (see this ngram). I wouldn't go so far as to say that pragmatic will die out in favor of practical (if anything the usage of these words is actually converging), but I suspect that practical will continue to be the more popular word for the foreseeable future.

  • I think you explained very well on practical's practical usages. – user140086 Nov 19 '15 at 16:34
  • Nice explanation, which seems to share some aspects in common with mine but certainly goes further – Languagemaven Nov 19 '15 at 16:35
  • The use of Pragmatism as the name for a school of philosophy comes under the exclusion of "jargon" (use in a specialized context) that I excluded in my question. (In fact, I had that specifically in mind when I wrote the exclusion.) So that part of your answer is not germane to the question. – jdmc Nov 19 '15 at 18:26
  • Fair enough. I would still argue that the words are not cognitive synonyms, even if one only includes the "principal" non-jargon definition of each word. But thanks for clarifying what you consider in-scope for "jargon." – Nonnal Nov 19 '15 at 19:12
  • I question jdmc's assertion that "pragmatism," even if used to describe a philosophical movement, constitutes "jargon." Is "absolutism" jargon because it is often used in history? Is "arpeggio" jargon because it is used in "music"? The fact that Webster's has the meaning of "confused, unintelligible language" as part of its primary meaning indicates to me that the sense of jargon in this context is that it's language that is often deliberately used to obscure meaning by the members of a particular group (as is ubiquitous in, say, the corporate or computer world). – Languagemaven Nov 19 '15 at 19:34
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Interesting question. They are relatively close synonyms, but I'd say "practical" is the more all-purpose, general word while "pragmatic" is more specific and related to a way of thinking. Pragmatism is, for instance, a philosophical line of thinking that eschews symbolic representations and ideas in favor of real instruments or, according to Webster's is:

a reasonable and logical way of doing things or of thinking about problems that is based on dealing with specific situations instead of on ideas and theories

The adjective "pragmatic" is:

: dealing with the problems that exist in a specific situation in a reasonable and logical way instead of depending on ideas and theories

"Practical" is:

relating to what is real rather than to what is possible or imagined

Both quite close, but as you can see there seems to be bit of a connotative difference, with "pragmatic" being a bit more academic. I'd probably argue that while pragmatic seems more related to a line of thought, practical refers to actions. For one thing, you seem to always hear someone say "Be practical" but you don't seem to hear "Be pragmatic."

  • The general/academic aspect and the thought/action aspect are useful and helpful distinctions. Good explanation. – Nonnal Nov 19 '15 at 16:38
  • While it's true that practical is used more frequently than pragmatic, that alone doesn't imply that advice to "be pragmatic" or to "be practical" would have any difference in meaning. – jdmc Nov 19 '15 at 18:29
  • @jdmc -- It's generally a good idea to read more carefully before commenting; I never say anything about practical being used "more frequently" (nor do I necessarily think it's the case). – Languagemaven Nov 19 '15 at 18:51
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methinks that the wannabe-considered well-read types and writers for TV-talkers have recently started substituting "pragmatic" in place of "practical" ...because it sounds more important + it (purposely) obscures their meaning -since no one knows why they are substituting the high-highfalutin-sounding, similar-but-incorrect word for the simple, normal and sensible one.

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    Why the -1? I agree that this is happening way too much: To "leverage" something, instead of plain ol' "use", or even "take advantage of" something. To assist someone, instead just helping them. To "revert" to someone with some business information, than than replying to them. (Of course, "revert" does not mean what the sender intends to say in this case. However, it's well worth using poor English to avoid the risk of appearing uneducated). Have a +1 to (partially) undo the bad karma that is seems the "wannabe-considered well-read types" are trying to force on you here :) – Reversed Engineer Nov 21 '16 at 9:25
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Pragmatic and practical are only synonyms in one sense: when describing something guided by practical experience and observation rather than theory.

Practical can be used to say a result or a thing has some quality in almost every respect. Pragmatic doesn't have this definition. ie. a practical failure or Tim is a practical wizard when it comes to coding.

You can also use practical to describe something put to a practical purpose or use. You can say practical applications of calculus but to say pragmatic applications of calculus is another thing entirely.

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"methinks that the wannabe-considered well-read types and writers for TV-talkers have recently started substituting "pragmatic" in place of "practical" ...because it sounds more important + it (purposely) obscures their meaning -since no one knows why they are substituting the high-highfalutin-sounding, similar-but-incorrect word for the simple, normal and sensible one."

Yes, I agree to some extent, although there is a definite difference between the two words. But along with what you are saying, there are other examples, as well. The use of paradigm instead of the word model; the use of dynamic instead of just saying situation or relationship.

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Practical - doable or relating to actions in real world

I will say pragmatic is a theory which is practical

Pragmatic - relating to practically verified theory i.e verified practically that the theory is true

When you say a book is practical, the book shows the way to do actions. When you say a book is pragmatic, the book has the theory which is verified that it can be converted to actions.

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This answer comes from [this definition][1], where pragmatism is described as: "action or policy dictated by consideration of the immediate practical consequences".

I interpret that as: You can discuss an approach on solving a problem pragmatically; knowing the cause and effects of the 'parameters' being discussed. Like: if we investigate the issue first to find a root cause, the chance of applying a solution that actually works is higher.

Now consider being practical (without being pragmatical) about solving a problem: you just start doing something differently. It is about the doing part, doing is practical. Thinking is not practical. It comes from the word practice. You do not practise soccer by thinking, but by 'doing' the soccer. Being practical about soccer is actually playing soccer.

Being pragmatic about soccer is like knowing that if you sprint too fast too soon in the game (to outrun your opponent), you may be too tired too soon to give a good directional kick on the ball to get it in the goal, when you get a good chance to do so. You do not need to play soccer at the moment you are pragmatic about it. SO being pragmatic about soccer is that you would save your energy for a better chance later in the game, for instance.

But maybe this is just my interpretation. I like this one better than just interchangeably using the words practical/pragmatical, because then there is no distinction.

I think the confusion comes from from people who like to discuss problems, and come up with exotic ideas, to which people reply: "let's be pragmatic." Not meaning to start doing something right away, but rather stay more close to one's experience to come up with solutions, rather than dreaming exotic ideas that could be just fun to try.

  • Thank you for your answer, @Mike, and welcome to the site! – jdmc Aug 28 at 14:57
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To me a pragmatic solution/decision would be a wise, feasible one, based on common sense.

A practical solution could be as above, but most of all it's smart and inventive, maybe ergonomic.

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