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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Reading of Paul Grice’s Presupposition & Conversational Implicature

By Abdeslam Badre

Introduction :

       Two principal reasons are enough to account for both the importance as well as the reason behind designing social rules of natural language use. On the one hand, they – or some of them- are used to protect one’s feelings by showing respect. On the other hand, more importantly, rules of language use are designed to protect the integrity of language; otherwise, the latter would cease to be of any importance to us if people went on telling lies in such a random manner. For this reason, a set of conventions (governing language-use that preserves its integrity) is settled, requiring us: (1) to be honest –among other things- (2) to have evidence for what we say, and (3) to make what we say relevant to the speech context. For further explanation of the rules of language use as introduced by P.Grice, and the way they operate in a conversation, a thorough reading of Grice’s above mentioned article is highly recommended, which is the attempting aim of this paper.


1 - The basis of P. Grice theory:

      The overriding aim of the Griciane theory is to show the meaning of both some logical devices and the meaning of their counterparts in natural language- such as: ( “and” →  “&”), ( “not” → “┐”), (“the” → “Ś”)... Simultaneously, Grice endeavours to show whether there is a divergence between the meaning of the formal logical devices and their natural language counterparts. That is to say, divergence may appear to exist as follows:


  • First, “The” → “Ś”= many logicians hold that if “the” appears in a definite description, then the phenomenon being referred to by whatever “the” modifies must exist and be unique. So, in logic, if you say: “ the restaurant in the Bristole road is excellent,” you would be taken to mean that there is one and only one restaurant in the Bristole road, and that is excellent. However, this is not the case in



natural language, for anyone to whom you may make the statement would ask: “ which restaurant do you mean?”


  • Second, “not” → “” = in logic the negator  works in such a way that :  if  ┐P” is true, then “P” is false, and vice versa. But in natural language, there seem to be many cases in which this is not the case. For example, it may not be true that Salim is happy, but this does not guarantee the truth of the statement “Salim is happy”: He could simply be in a mental state in between happy and not happy.


  • Third, and” →  “&” =  in logic P & Q is true in exactly the same circumstances as Q& P. But in natural language, “I fell down and got up” is not necessarily true in the same circumstances as “I got up and fell down”. Grice suggests two sorts of tests by which one might hope to identify a conversational implicature, namely: 1) concellation, 2) non-detachability. A further explanation of these two notions is to be provided in coming part.


2 - Introduction To Conversational Implicature:


In all these three cases, it is tempting to suggest that the formal logical devices do not, in fact, have natural-language counterparts at all: that is, their meaning is radically different from the meaning of those natural-language items which just happen to look like translations of the formal logical items. To warrant this claim, Grice draws a distinction between what is said and what is conversationally implicated. A logician and a natural-language user say exactly the same, but it is a convention of natural language not shared by logic that the use of words we are concerned with  has certain implications in addition to what they say. This use normally implicates one particular order of succession or exclusion of one of the disjuncts (if/then, either/or...). As we are going to see, implicature cannot be part of what is being said, by considering the fact that it can be cancelled out: I can say : “A happened and B happened, but not in this order,” where “but not in that order” obviously cancels out the implication of succession of “and”.


To illustrate what is meant by implicature, and to show that it is quite distinct from what is said, Grice introduces a third notion, namely non-conversational implicature. This differs from conversational implicature in that it is very obviously distinct from what is being said. To illustrate on this, let us consider the following example:

“A “and “B” are talking about a mutual friend, “C”, who is now working in a bank. “A” asks “B” how “C” is getting in his job, and “B” replies :” oh quite well I think; he likes his colleagues, and he hasn’t been to prison yet.


Whatever is implied here obviously depends on many facts about “A”,”B”, and ”C” and their life history, which is thus in no sense conversationally implicated.


       There is, however, a subclass of non-conversational implicature which has aspects of conventionality in it, and it is this class which has been so influential in pragmatic theory: it is what Grice calls conversational implicature. The latter is essentially connected with general features of discourse; and these general features of discourse arise from the fact that if our talk exchanges are to be rational, they must consist of utterances which are in someway connected with each other. What guarantees this connection, according to Grice, is the co-operative principle


3 - The Co-Operative Principle:

Central to Paul Grice’s theory of conversational implicature is the notion of Co-operative Principle. It is believed that co-operative principle underlies language use, according to which we are enjoined to make sure that what we say in a conversation furthers the purpose of a given talk exchange. In this sense, the “principle” entails that : once in a conversation, a speaker should make his/her contribution such as required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of talk exchange in which the speaker is engaged.


Obviously, the requirements of different types of conversations will be different according to the degree of formality of speech, the context and the addressee. But this does not mean that the least formal sort of conversation is not rule-governed. Put other way, even the most casual talk exchange is unlikely to consist of such random sentences or disconnected discourse as:


       Badre:              How are you today?

       Amin:              Ottawa is the capital of Canada.

       Ali:              Really? I thought the weather would be warmer.

       Hanan:       in my opinion, the soup could have used a little salt.


In this talk exchange, no sentence seems to establish a link between what is said or yet to be said. The reason behind this disconnectedness can be explained in term of the co-Operative Principle. Grice argues that there are a number of rules, or maxims, that regulate conversation by way of enforcing compliance with the C.P. At  the heart of this system of maxims is the Maxims of Quality.


1-    Maxims of Quality:

Supermaxim:             Try to make your contribution one that is true.

More specifically:             a) Do not say what you believe to be false.

                                    b) Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.


2-     Maxims of quantity:  (related to the amount of information to be provided.)

a) Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange.

b) don’t make your contribution more informative than is required.


3-    Maxims of relation: Be relevant.


4-    Maxims of manner:  concerned with how it is said rather than what is said.

Supermaxim:             Be perspicuous.

More specifically:            a) avoid obscurity.

                                    b) avoid ambiguity.

                                    c) be brief.

                                    d) be orderly.


4 - How a CP can be flouted?

A participant in a talk exchange may fail to fulfil a maxim in a number of ways. Firstly, A speaker may violates the maxim, in which case s/he will be likely to mislead. Secondly, a speaker may opt out of observing the principle by saying things like “I don’t want to talk about it”. Thirdly, there may be a conflict of maxims. That is you cannot be as informative as is required if you do not have adequate evidence. Finally, a speaker may blatantly flout a maxim. When, for instance, a maxim is being flouted while it is clear that the co-operative principle is being observed, the hearer will supply whatever implicature is necessary to reinstate the maxim. When this happens, Grice says that a maxim is being exploited.


5 - The five features of the Conversational Implicature.

Conversational implicature, confirms Grice, must possess five features:

1-    It can be cancelled, since it depends on the co-operative principle being observed; and one can opt out of observing it, by simply saying:” I don’t mean...”

2-    It is non-detachable from what is being said. If the same thing is said in different way, then the same implicature will attach to both manners of expression: the same implicature of “having failed to achieve something” which attaches to “I endeavoured to do it”, will also attach to the paraphrases  “I tried to do it,” or “I attempted to do it”.

3-    It is not part of the meaning of the expression, since if it were, it could not be cancelled, but is dependent on the prior knowledge of that meaning.

4-    It is not carried by what is said – the meaning- but by the saying of what is said (by the speech act, but not the propositional content).

5-    It is indeterminate: there are often several implicatures.


Although Grice states his maxims as if the purpose of talk exchange is always simply the effective exchange of information, he is aware that there are many other reasons for engaging in a conversation, and that other maxims, principles, and concerns may influence the ways in which people conduct themselves in conversations. We shall see below how later research in pragmatics has added to the basis provided by Grice.


6 - Leech’s Politeness Principle:

Leech (1983, p.80) points out that the CP in itself cannot explain why people are often so indirect in conveying what they actually mean; and what is the relation between sense and force when non-declarative types of sentence are being produced. So he suggests that a further, complementary, principle, the politeness principle (pp), is required to complement the CP. The PP has two formulations, one negative: it minimises the expression of impolite belief; the other is positive, and it maximises the expression of polite belief. This principle works as follows:


A : we’ll miss Bill & Iman, won’t we?

B : well, we’ll all miss Iman.


In this example, B apparently fails to observe the maxim of quantity: when A asks B to confirm A’s opinion, B merely conforms part of it, and ignores the rest. From this we derive the implicature: B implies that we wont miss Bill but Iman. We arrive at this conclusion not only on the ground of CP, because B could have added “... but not BILL,” without being untruthful, irrelevant or unclear. Indeed, our conclusion is that B could have been more informative, but only at the cost of being more impolite to a third part. So, B suppressed the desired information in order to uphold the PP.



In short, politeness is gradable, an utterance tending to be more polite in proportion to the directness of its force. This is because an increase in indirectness seems to allow the hearer more choice in how s/he response. Leech outlines a number of maxims covering politeness, and points out that different societies differ in their weigh they attach to different maxims.



1 - Cole., P. ‘‘Presupposition and Conversational Implicature,’’  in  Radical Pragmatics (Academic Press: 1981 ).


2 - Malmkjaer Kirsten, ed., The Linguistics Encyclopedia, ( London : Routledge, 1995).

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