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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 “Implicature is a technical term in the pragmatics subfield of linguistics, coined by H. P. Grice, which refers to what is suggested in an utterance, even though neither expressed nor strictly implied (that is, entailed) by the utterance.[1] For example, the sentence “Mary had a baby and got married” strongly suggests that Mary had the baby before the wedding, but the sentence would still be strictly true if Mary had her baby after she got married. Further, if we add the qualification “— not necessarily in that order” to the original sentence, then the implicature is cancelled even though the meaning of the original sentence is not altered.”


The Contrast of “But”: Drunken Pappas and Bad Marathoners

Grice clarifies the difference between what a sentence literally means and what it may suggest or implicate. That is, he argues that often what a speaker intends to convey is completely different from the meaning of the sentence used by the speaker. For example, I say to my friend Elisa,

“Elisa, we have the elections in Italy. For whom are you going to vote?” and she replies “Well, I hate politicians; they are all corrupted.”

This exchange is very peculiar because Elisa meant that she is not going to vote for anybody; in fact, she meant that she is not going to vote at all. However, she did not explicitly utter

“I am not going to vote”

and her sentence does not in any way suggest that she will not vote, but rather that she dislikes all politicians and she thinks that they are all corrupted.  Therefore, Elisa merely implied that she is not going to vote or, as Grice would put it, she implicated that she is not going to vote; thus, what she had in mind and tried to convey through her remark about the politicians was her implicature, and Grice calls it “conversational implicature.”

Grice also identifies another type of implicature, which he calls conventional. A conventional implicature describes the relationship between two sentences. Generally, the truth of one sentence suggests that the sentence that follows is also true. For example the sentence,

“Joe walked a lot today and his feet stink”

may suggest that Joe’s feet stink as a result of his long walk. That is, Joe’s long walk resulted in Joe’s feet reeking is the implicature. However, the two sentences would also be true if Joe’s feet stank before he took a long walk. Grice also points out that it is possible to cancel an implicature without altering the meaning of the original phrase. In this case, it is sufficient to say

“Joe walked a lot today and his feet stink—not that his feet smelt like roses before he took a walk.”

As we saw, this type of implicature suggests that there is a relationship between two sentences ((1) Joe walked…and (2) his feet…), namely that the truth of the first may demand that the second be also true, but it is not the case. In contrast, entailment is the relationship between two sentences but the truth of one sentence requires the truth of the other. A famous example is the following.

“The president was murdered” entails that “The president is dead.”

Thus, if the first sentence was false, the second would necessarily be false. That is, if the president was not murdered, then the president cannot be dead. An entailment, therefore, cannot be cancelled for it is a necessary conclusion based on the literal meaning of the sentence.

Consider the following sentence.

“He runs marathons but gets winded sprinting for the bus.”

If this person is a marathoner, it is perfectly conceivable that, under normal circumstances, he might get winded running for the bus. In other words, we can cancel the implicature if we work out the sentence as follows.

“He runs marathons but, because he is not training for any competition at the moment, he gets winded running for the bus; in fact, even the world’s best athlete may get winded sprinting for the bus, especially when he does not exercise everyday.” Or,

“He runs marathons but gets winded sprinting for the bus, it is not a big deal; in fact, everybody knows that marathons are running events with very long distances, sometimes over 40 kilometers, to be covered. Therefore, because a marathoner is trained to endure long distances rather than running short sprints, there is nothing surprising in a marathoner getting winded for the bus, which requires a short sprint”

Furthermore, it is not necessarily needed to interpret the implicature as a contrast between being a marathoner and getting winded for the bus, or that it is surprising that a marathoner gets winded for the bus. That is to say, the speaker is just trying to create a “humorous” situation about an athlete and what he really tries to imply is that he thinks that that person is a bad marathon runner; the speaker does not literally mean that the marathoner gets winded sprinting for the bus, but rather uses a sarcastic remark to imply that the marathoner is a very bad runner.

 It has to be said, therefore, that cancelability distinguishes conventional from conversation implicatures.  Conversational implicature may be cancelled, but not always. In his essay “Logic and Conversation”, Grice fails to mention that, with regard to generalized conversational implicatures, the more evident the speaker’s intention to implicate something, the harder it becomes to cancel the implicature. For example this conversation is felicitous and the implicature can be easily cancelled:

A: Yesterday, I had one of the greatest meals I have ever had in my entire life. If you like good food you must check this restaurant out!

            B: What’s the name of the restaurant?

            A: It’s Da Peppino, the one on 5th Avenue.

The next day…

            A: So, what did you think of Da Peppino?

            B: Well, let’s say that they will never see my face again!

In this conversation, A might be inclined to think that B is implicating that the food Da Peppino was really bad. However, this implicature will be cancelled if B adds “Not that I mean that the food was bad, on the contrary, but $350 for two prix fix meals is a rip-off !”

Nevertheless, consider an example of implicature that is less easy to cancel:

            A: I haven’t seen Nick Pappas in a while. How is he doing?

            B: I saw him this morning and he was sober.

Taking for granted that A knows Nick Pappas very well, A may ask B what he implied. B might add,

“I was just joking. We all know that Nick is a nondrinker.”

Obviously in this example, the implicature is less cancellable because the speaker seems to have a clear intention to imply, in this case as a joke, that Pappas sometimes is drunk. But what would have happened if A had not known Pappas? The implicature would have certainly been harder to cancel. In fact, B would have had to try to cancel the implicature by saying

“Not that I mean to imply that he is ever drunk.” However, A would have asked B

“So why would you take the trouble to say that he was sober today?”  The next example is clearly impossible to cancel.

            A: Did you see the latest Mel Gibson’s film?

            B: I only like intelligent films.

B has committed himself and now he cannot in any way cancel this implicature, even if he tries very hard. Can he add

“…but I am not suggesting that Mel Gibson’s latest film is not an intelligent film, on the contrary—I loved it.”

 B cannot cancel the implicature without contradicting himself.

Similarly, conventional implicatures, as I demonstrated earlier with the example of Joe’s stinky feet, may often be canceled. I say “often” because there are certain examples of implicatures that are not cancelable even with the addition of a clause stating that the speaker has opted out. It has been argued, for example, that the implicatures of contrast associated with “but” seems impossible to cancel. Indeed, these implicatures are impossible to cancel but only if a sentence is uttered from nowhere. That is, if I stop somebody and I say to him,

“He is French but he takes showers”

obviously the implicature is impossible to cancel. That is, I clearly implied that French people are dirty, and therefore I cannot expect the person to whom I spoke to believe that I thought otherwise. I may add

“Not that I mean that French people don’t take showers” or even “But I don’t mean to imply that all French people don’t take showers—in fact he is French and he does,”

but that does not cancel the implicature because the additional clause seems contradictory. In this case the “but” seems to be part of the sentence’s meaning. Another example that has no “but” and it is impossible to cancel is this.

“He is Italian; he is, therefore, handsome and intelligent.”

On the other hand, people communicate using sentences accordingly in specific contexts. Nobody would stop a person and, all at once, tell him or her “He is French but he takes showers.” If this were the case, however, the hearer would demand some explanations and the speaker would, if he intended to have a genuine exchange in the first place, clarify his intention by saying, for example,

“I always hear people say that French people are dirty, but I do not believe it. In fact, he is French but he takes showers.”

Also, the example stated earlier, “He runs marathons…” may be rendered felicitous by explaining that there isn’t any contrast between running marathons and getting winded by short sprints, for a marathoner is trained to endure long distances rather than short sprints.

Similarly, consider this sentence

“He is a professional bodybuilder but he gets winded holding a sac of potatoes steady above his head for a few seconds.”

I can cancel the implicature by explaining that bodybuilders are trained to lift heavy weights in rapid successions to enhance their physical aspect; conversely, weightlifters are trained to hold heavy weights over their heads for long periods of time. Therefore, there is nothing surprising in a bodybuilder who gets winded holding potatoes over his head for a long period of time. Furthermore, I may also cancel the implicature by saying that I ironically implicated some sort of contrast between being a professional bodybuilder, (who is supposed to be a strong man) and getting winded by a ridiculous weight like a sac of potatoes to convey, for example, that a certain governor, a former actor, is a mediocre professional bodybuilder.

Finally, certain conventional implicatures are impossible to cancel, especially when a speaker utters a phrase that uses the word “but”. For example, the sentence

“He is a lawyer but he is intelligent”

certainly conveys the idea (implicates) that there is a contrast between being a lawyer and being intelligent; and it seems impossible to get rid of the implicature. However, it has been shown that phrases like “He is a lawyer but…” are never uttered from nowhere, but rather are parts of a conversation; prior to this sentence, the speaker must have stated something like

“By and large, people believe that lawyers are stupid, but I don’t agree. He is a lawyer and he is intelligent.”

Thus, it seems that conventional implicatures do not really exist. By reading “Logic and Conversation,” it appears that even Grice is uncertain about conventional implicatures. In fact, Grice might respond that speakers conventionally use sentences to convey messages that are quite different from what their sentences literally mean. Often those messages are meant to be ironic, not literal, and therefore, like in the case of conventional implicatures, they may somehow be worked out allowing the utterer to opt out.


Author: Carlo Alvaro


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