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Conversational Implicature

We've all been there; you have watched five episodes of a tv show on Netflix and are just about to fall asleep when the screen has a pop-up message asking 'are you still watching...?'. Netflix is implying that you don't want to lose your place, but the question also implies that it should power down for the night. This is an example of Conversational implicature, which is a term used to describe instances of conversation when the speaker means more than they say. Let's look at the meaning, examples, and some Gricean maxims that explains how conversational implicature can be used in day-to-day situations.

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Conversational Implicature

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We've all been there; you have watched five episodes of a tv show on Netflix and are just about to fall asleep when the screen has a pop-up message asking 'are you still watching...?'. Netflix is implying that you don't want to lose your place, but the question also implies that it should power down for the night. This is an example of Conversational implicature, which is a term used to describe instances of conversation when the speaker means more than they say. Let's look at the meaning, examples, and some Gricean maxims that explains how conversational implicature can be used in day-to-day situations.

Conversational implicature: meaning

Implicature refers to the meaning that is inferred or implied in a conversation, beyond the literal or explicit meaning of the words used. It involves the speaker conveying additional information or intentions indirectly. For instance, if someone says, "The weather is nice today," during a picnic, the implicature could be that they are inviting others to enjoy the good weather and join them outdoors. Implicatures play a vital role in effective communication by allowing for subtle nuances and shared understanding between participants in a conversation.

The philosopher HP Grice first suggested that in conversation we often convey information beyond that which we say and that this added meaning is inferred and predictable. He referred to this as 'conversational implicature'. Since Grice's initial proposal and work, conversational implicatures have become one of the major research areas in pragmatics.

Conversational implicature: examples

Conversational implicature occurs when meaning is implied or suggested by a speaker, even though it is not explicitly stated. An example of conversational implicature is when someone asks, "Do you have any plans tonight?" and the other person responds, "I have a book I've been meaning to read." The implicature here is that the person does not have any plans and intends to spend the evening reading the book.

Conversational implicature is also known as Implication: this happens when the speaker says something that requires interpretation and is an indirect way of saying something.

For instance, a mother says to her daughter who is about to go to the beach: 'Better put some sunscreen on before you go.'

From this we understand: 'It is hot and sunny outside, so you might get sunburned '.

Here is another example of conversational implicature:

A couple of housemates are getting ready to go to a party; one of them asks the other:

'Are you going to be much longer?'

To which the other replies:

'You can mix yourself another drink.'

In the question, the implied meaning could be: 'It's time to go / We're going to be late / What is taking you so long?'

In the answer, the implied meaning could be: 'I don't know, maybe / I will be ready soon, you have time for another drink.'

These are indirect exchanges, where the original information or query is 'encoded'; by doing this, we imply something (which means we don't explicitly state it). Exchanges like this rely on context, situation, and inferences to be understood.

Conversational Implicature - Getting ready to go out - StudySmarterFig 1. - Most of the time, when we ask "are you nearly ready?", we're implying that we need to leave soon.

We use conversational implicature to supplement what we say; it also offers us a discreet way of supplying sensitive information.

Let's say Jeff wants to take on a new assistant called Flint. Jeff's friend also knows Flint, and when Jeff asks him about Flint, the friend says:

'Oh he's very friendly, very media-savvy, loves animals.'

At first glance, these could all seem like positives, but what his friend might actually be saying is that Flint is not best suited to the role Jeff is offering. However, to avoid appearing indiscreet, or unhelpful, the friend chooses to encode his message - and this is an example of implicature.

Have a look at the following two exchanges:

A and B are in the sitting room, with the TV on. Neither of them is watching. A asks B: Are you watching this? B responds by changing channels on the TV.

In the question 'Are you watching this?' A communicates one or more of the following: 'I am bored with this programme/neither of us is watching, so why not change it? A doesn't explicitly say either of these things - it is implied.

Based on the situation and the inferences B can make from A, B deduces that A is in fact asking for the TV to be switched off. So A's question is an example of implicature.

Conversational Implicature - A couple working on laptops with TV on- StudySmarterFig 2. - When we ask questions, we often are wanting to know something else. Here, the speaker want's to know if he can change the channel.

C: I need to get some breakfast.

D: There's a baker's just around the corner.

C, a newcomer to the area, needs to find something to eat; D's reply at first glance might seem irrelevant or unconnected. We (and C if he wants to get his breakfast) need to use our powers of inference to understand that D is showing us where to get essentials for breakfast.

Conversational Implicature: Examples
Conversational Implicature: QuestionConversational Implicature: AnswerImplied Meaning
Have some cake? Thanks, but I'm gluten intolerant.So I won't have any cake
Where can I get fresh fruit here? There's a daily market in the square.You can buy fresh fruit there
Do you have a rolling pin I can borrow? Sorry, I don't bake. So I don't have a rolling pin)

Conversational implicature: Gricean Theory

Let's look a little closer at Grice's Theory of Conversational Implicature.

Grice was the first to properly study how what a speaker says can be different from what they mean. He introduced the terms 'implication' and 'implicature' to illustrate this phenomenon.

Conversational implicature: conversational maxims

Grice's Theory suggests that people in a conversation are guided by the Cooperative Principle and Maxims of Conversation. This means that people are expected to communicate in a cooperative, helpful way by following these maxims. There are four Maxims, which are as follows:

  • The Maxim of Quality, which requires us to aim for truthfulness (i.e. what you believe to be true, or have evidence for).

  • The Maxim of quantity says we should only be as informative as is necessary/useful for the current exchange, and no more.

  • The Maxim of Relation tells us to be relevant.

  • The Maxim of Manner requires us to be brief, clear and orderly.

Quality: Zach has a doctorate in archaeology. (I believe Zach has a doctorate in archaeology and I have evidence of this) Quantity: He stayed in a forest cabin. (The cabin was not his own, or the speaker would say: 'He stayed in his forest cabin') Relation: Those cookies look good! (I would like one or more) Manner: The play ended and the audience trailed out to the bar. (By describing the events clearly, in the sequence they happened, the speaker is being clear and orderly)

In a conversation, the speaker may

  • observe the maxims

  • opt-out by 'hedging', eg: - using cautious or vague language that signals hesitancy

  • flout a maxim, in full knowledge of the addressee

Opting out or flouting the maxims are what cause conversational implicatures to arise in speech; these actions are also signalled to the addressee.


A participant may be trying to follow the maxims and discover they cannot, and this can lead to a clash of maxims.

Types of conversational implicature - maxim clashes

It isn't always possible to follow all the maxims at the same time, which leads to a maxim clash. This is where conversational implicature comes in.

Let's say a couple of friends are planning a night out on the town. X suggests a new restaurant that's just opened. Y says: Sounds good. Where is it? X: Somewhere off the high street. (X doesn't have the exact address)

X's answer does not contain enough information to plan the occasion; by not having the exact information, X cannot obey either the quantity or quality maxim. By saying 'somewhere' X suggests 'I know sort of where it is - I just don't have the exact address'; this becomes an indirect answer, hence implicature.

Conversational Implicature - A restaurant and a map - StudySmarterFig. 3 - Flouting maxims can leave someone with either incorrect or not enough information.

A: 'Is the sun shining yet?'
B: 'It might be.'

B wishes to cooperate by offering some information in this exchange (so obeying the maxim of quality, i.e. striving for truthfulness - he believes the sun is out); he isn't certain, however, so he opts out of the maxim of quantity (being informative). These contrasts become a maxim clash.

Hedging

We might also opt out of the Cooperative Principle by using cautious or vague language; this is to let the other person know that we are not totally certain of the information we are giving.

Amy is a journalist asking her colleague (Brent) for information about a famous person she is about to interview; Brent has heard something but does not have evidence, and he doesn't want to suggest something that might prove to be untrue. So Brent opens his answer with 'I'm not sure if this is true, but ...'. He could also open with 'I may be wrong, but ...' or 'As far as I know ...'

Brent is being cautious about the information he is about to share; he is hedging. This means that he is signalling to Amy that the information might not be correct and therefore should not be relied on too much.

Flouting

Conversational implicatures can also happen when a speaker clearly and intentionally violates the Maxims of Conversation, intending for this to be recognized. Let's look at what happens when the maxims of conversation are flouted:

Flouted Maxim of Quality:

He hit the roof when he heard the news.

Saying something that is obviously false can demonstrate figures of speech such as irony, hyperbole and metaphor.

In the above example, it is unlikely he was tall enough to hit the roof, or that he was propelled like a rocket to hit the roof; It is also very unlikely that the speaker was intentionally lying or mistaken - the addressee has to infer that the speaker was using a metaphor or figure of speech.

Flouted maxim of quantity:

It is what it is.

You do what you have to do.

Either it is or it isn't.

Saying something that appears obvious, without being informative (including tautologies), can still suggest information via implicatures. Take a look at the examples in context below:

A and B have been talking about work.

B ends by saying 'It is what it is.'

B means here: There's nothing we can do about it/no point in complaining about it.

'You do what you have to do.'

This implies that whatever someone is about to do is unpleasant but necessary.

Another way to flout the quantity maxim is by damning with faint price:

'The painting had a very beautiful frame.'

This suggests the painting was terrible, but the frame was nice to look at.

'The critic described the play as a good first effort.'

Here the critic avoids saying there were problems with the play by focusing on the inexperience of the author.

Flouted maxim of relation/relevance:

In the exchange below, B's answer seems irrelevant, so A infers that B means something else:

A: Glenn's a bit of a bore, isn't he?

B: Have you seen Free Guy yet? (i.e. Glenn is standing behind you!)

Conversational Implicature, 2 people having a conversation, a third person is behind them, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Providing unnecessary information is a form of flouting the maxim of relevance.

Flouted maxim of manner:

It would be quicker to say 'the food was over-cooked / burnt/inedible' than the following:

'The chef presented us with a plateful of items that might at one point in their existence have been food, but had long since given up that claim.'

By over-describing, the speaker avoids saying directly just how terrible the food was.

Particularized versus generalized implicature

The most common conversational implicatures only happen in specific contexts and are called particularized. Many of the examples we have looked at so far require some kind of context; this makes them particularized implicatures.

Other conversational implicatures can be inferred without reference to a special context and these are called generalized. Usually, the indefinite article 'a' / 'an' will imply that there is no close connection to the speaker or subject.

Terry walked through a park and saw a parakeet in a tree.

This shows us that Terry is unrelated to the park, the parakeet, and the tree: they could be anywhere, it could be any tree, and any parakeet.

Conversational implicature: properties

Grice attributed various properties to conversational implicatures. They are defeasible, non-detachable, calculable, non-conventional, and context-dependent.

Defeasible (cancellable)

This means the implicature can be cancelled by further information or context.

Take the examples from above:

'Those cookies look good! ' (I would like one or more)

Now compare it with:

'Those cookies look good, but I'm on a diet.' (implicature defeated; i.e. 'I won't have any.')

And compare this:

C: I need to get some breakfast.

D: There's a baker's just around the corner. (You can get what you need there)

With

C: I need to get some breakfast.

D: There's a baker's just around the corner. But they won't be open yet. (implicature defeated)

They are usually non-detachable

This means they rely on meaning and not the wording. So you can rephrase 'Those cookies look good!' as:

Those biscuits look delicious!

The chocolate wafers you brought are to die for!

And the implicature will remain.

Conversational Implicature - Somebody looking greedily at some biscuits - StudySmarterFig. 5 - Here, "those look yummy" has a non-detachable implicature.

They are calculable

This means they can be worked out rationally, as they are inferred and implied (and not encoded/decoded).

They are non-conventional

They are not part of the literal meaning of a sentence.

They can be context-dependent

Conventional implicature: meaning

As well as conversational implicature, Grice also presented a theory of conventional implicature but never developed it. Conventional implicature does not rely on the cooperative principle and the four maxims; instead, it is directly attached to the literal meaning of the words being said.

Let's look at a simple sentence:

A) 'Tom is tall and weak.'

Both parts of this statement can be true.

B) 'Tom is tall but weak.'

Both parts of this statement are still true, only now there is a contrast, introduced by the word 'but'. If we replace 'but' with 'and', we lose the sense of contrast.

The contrast must be part of the conventional meaning of the word 'but'. At the same time, the contrast is not part of the truth condition. Therefore, statement B is not truth conditional (both statements contain truth conditions but only one contains the contrast).

So this kind of conventional, but non-truth conditional, meaning is what Grice called a conventional implicature.

Note: Conventional implicature uses other particles and phrases like 'but' such as "although, however, nevertheless, moreover, anyway, whereas, after all, even, yet, still, besides".

'Even Kate knew they were on holiday.'

(i.e. Kate is the least likely person to have known)

'Jeremy still isn't at the gallery.'

Jeremy is not at the gallery; the use of 'still' hints that he is expected there.

Unlike conversational implicatures, conventional implicatures are not defeasible. Certain verbs also introduce conventional implicature:

'Tom managed to get there on time.'

The speaker tells us Tom got there. The conventional implicature is: he had some difficulty in getting there.

'He failed to get there.'

This means he didn't get there. The conventional implicature is: he attempted to get there, but didn't succeed or, he could have got there but didn't try to.

What are the different characteristics between conversational and conventional implicature?

These are the main differences between conversational implicature and conventional implicature:

Conversational Implicature CharacteristicsConventional Implicature Characteristics
Conversational implicatures rely on the cooperative principle and the four maxims.Conventional implicatures do not rely on the cooperative principle and the four maxims; instead, they are directly attached to the literal meaning of the words being said.
In conversational implicature, the speaker says one thing but means another (implied).Conventional implicature is directly attached to the literal meaning of the words being said.
Conversational implications are defeasible (they can be cancelled out by additional information).Conventional implications are not defeasible.

Conversational Implicature - key takeaways

  • In conversational implicature, also called Implications, the speaker says one thing but means another.
  • Speakers use conversational implicature to convey messages that are often beyond the literal meaning.
  • Conversational implicature relies on context, situation, and inference.
  • We also use conversational implicature to supplement what we say; it also offers a discreet way of supplying sensitive information.
  • According to Grice, people in a conversation are guided by the Cooperative Principle and Maxims of Conversation. The four categories of Maxims are Quality, Quantity, Relation, and Manner.

Frequently Asked Questions about Conversational Implicature

Conversational implicature is either particularised or generalised; the third type of implicature is called conventional.

Grice explains that conversational implicature suggests that we often convey information beyond that which we say and that this additional meaning is inferred and predictable.

Conversational implicature is a form of indirect speech: the speaker may mean more than they actually say.

In conversational implicature, the speaker says one thing but means another. For example, a speaker may say "it's hot in here" but actually mean 'can you open the window?'

Implication is another name for conversational implicature

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What is Conversational Implicature? (There may be more than one answer)

Conversational implicatures can be : ...(one or more answers may be correct)

Choose the right answer. The Maxims of Quantity requires: 

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