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Conversational Implicature

In a series of lectures at Harvard University in 1967, the English language

philosopher H.P. (Paul) Grice outlined an approach to what he termed

conversational implicature– how hearers manage to work out the complete

message when speakers mean more than they say. An example of what Grice

meant by conversational implicature is the utterance:

“Have you got any cash on you?”

where the speaker really wants the hearer to understand the meaning:

“Can you lend me some money? I don’t have much on me.”

Consider the following:

parent Did you do your homework?

child I finished my essay.

parent Well, you better do your algebra too.

The parent inferred that the child had not done all her homework, even

though she did not assert she didn’t. The parent inferred that if the child explicitly

mentioned only one of her assignments, she had not done the other; that is,

mentioning only the essay and failing to mention algebra implicates that she had not done her algebra.

The conversational implicatureis a message that is not found in the plain

sense of the sentence. The speaker implicates it. The hearer is able to infer (work

out, read between the lines) this message in the utterance by appealing to the rules

governing successful conversational interaction. Grice proposed that implicatures

like the second sentence can be calculated from the first, by understanding three


− The usual linguistic meaning of what is said.

− Contextual information (shared or general knowledge).

− The assumption that the speaker is obeying what Grice calls the cooperative


2. The Cooperative principle and Grice’s maxims

In 1975, H. P.Grice published a seminal article entitled "The Co-operative

Principle" that created quite a stir on the linguistic scene and generated a large

number of linguistic publications that built on Grice’s postulates. Paul Grice

proposes that in ordinary conversation, speakers and hearers share a cooperative

principle. The basic assumption is that any discourse, whether written or spoken, is

a joint effort. Both the speaker and the addressee have to follow certain pragmatic,

syntactic, and semantic rules in order to communicate effectively. They have to cooperate.

The Cooperative Principle is an attempt to show how speaker’s meaning

arises from sentence meaning.

As phrased by Paul Grice, who introduced it, it states, "Make your

contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted

purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged." Though

phrased as a prescriptive command, the principle is intended as a description of

how people normally behave in conversation. Put more simply, people who obey

the cooperative principle in their language use will make sure that what they say in

a conversation furthers the purpose of that conversation. Obviously, the

requirements of different types of conversations will be different.

The cooperative principle can be divided into four maxims, called the

Gricean maxims,

The principle can be explained by four underlying rules or maxims

describing specific rational principles observed by people who obey the

cooperative principle; these principles enable effective communication. (David

Crystal calls them conversational maxims. They are also sometimes named

Grice’s or Gricean maxims.) They are the maxims of quality, quantity, relevance

and manner.

− Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true. – Speakers should be

truthful. They should not say what they think is false, or make statements for

which they have no evidence.

− Quantity: Give the right amount of information. – A contribution should be

as informative as is required for the conversation to proceed. It should be

neither too little, nor too much. (It is not clear how one can decide what

quantity of information satisfies the maxim in a given case.)

− Relevance: Be relevant. – Speakers’ contributions should relate clearly to

the purpose of the exchange.

− Manner: Be perspicuous [i.e. clear, easy to follow]. – Speakers’

contributions should be perspicuous: clear, orderly and brief, avoiding

obscurity and ambiguity.

Of these maxims, the most important is the Maxim of Relation: in listening

to someone, we assume that whatever that person is saying to us is somehow

relevant to the conversational situation. So, for example, in the following


A: Mary lost a book today.

B: Well, I saw Jane carrying around a new book this afternoon.

Person A will infer from B’s utterance that Jane is somehow responsible for

the disappearance of Mary’s book, even though B did actually not say that Jane

was responsible: the Maxim of Relation gives us license to infer that B would not

have said what s/he did unless the information B provided was somehow relevant

to the statement A made. In this way, B’s statement licensed a conversational

implicature. Consider also the following:

A: Do you like wine?

B: Thanks.

If at a party, A stands before B and asks if B if s/he likes wine, B is allowed

to infer that A is offering B wine even though A did not literally make an offer of

wine. The Maxim of Relation licenses B to infer that A is offering wine since that

understanding would make A’s question most relevant to the context in which it

was said. In other words, understanding what someone is saying to us involves not

just understanding the literal meaning of their utterances, but also making

inferences about how that literal meaning is relevant to the current situation. This

means that we could infer two different messages from the same utterance

depending on how we interpret the situation. So, if someone says, A: You can close the door. we could interpret the statement as a not-too-polite request to close the door or as a statement about the condition of the door [= ‘the door can be closed’] depending on the context in which it is uttered: conversational implicature is sensitive to the context of the utterance.

The other maxims are also important. For example, consider the following

letter of recommendation:

Dear Sir or Madam:

Mr. Hardbottom faithfully turns his work in on time and actively

participates in discussions in seminars.

Yours sincerely,

Prof. Bonebreak

This letter does not contribute the correct amount of information [thus

violating the Maxim of Quantity], which allows the inference that there is a reason

why the correct amount of information is not being provided, namely that to do so

would involve saying negative things about the recommendee.

According to Grice, the maxims are learned guidelines for social interaction.

“It is just a well-recognized empirical fact that people do behave in these ways [i.e.

in ways that the maxims prescribe]; they learned to do so in childhood, and have

not lost the habit of doing so” (Grice 1989:29).

Grice does not of course prescribe the use of such maxims. Nor does he

suggest that we use them to construct conversations. But they are useful for

analysing and interpreting conversation, and may reveal purposes of which (either

as speaker or listener) we were not previously aware. Although presupposed to be

adhered to by the participants, the maxims are often deliberately broken. Very

often, we communicate particular non-literal meanings by appearing to "violate" or

"flout" these maxims.

If we VIOLATE the maxims, it means that we break them surreptitiously, or

covertly, so that other people do not know. If we violate the maxim of quality, we

lie. If we violate the maxim of quantity by not giving enough information, if

someone finds out we can be accused of 'being economical with the truth', another

deceit. As with laws, some maxim violations can be more heinous than others.

Lying in a court of law is disapproved, but 'white lies', small lies to keep the social

peace, are often thought as acceptable.

If we FLOUT a maxim, we break it in a flagrant (and often foregrounded)

way, so that it is obvious to all concerned that it has been broken. If this happens,

then it is clear that the speaker is intending the hearer to infer some extra meaning

over and above what is said. Maxims can be flouted, e.g., in phatic or small talk

(quantity), ´white lies´ (quality), humour, irony, teasing, banter, puns (manner),

topic shift, seemingly irrelevant remarks whose relevance is implied and may only

be disclosed by inference (relation). Some tropes(figures of speech) are built on

the breach of CP: hyperbole (exaggeration: to wait an eternity), litotes

(understatement, esp. that in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of

its contrary: not bad at all), tautology (repetition: War is war, and there will be losers), paraphrase, euphemism, metaphor and esp. irony (conveys a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning: How nice! said after someone´s I failed another exam).

It should be made very clear here that breaking of any of the maxims of

Date: 2015-12-17; view: 1031

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