Understanding Discourse – Grice and Implicatures Part 3

This is the last of three parts on Grice and Implicatures.


4.      Implications for the Classroom

In Bouton’s experiment (1999), a total of 6 hours of explicit instruction was given over a 6-week period using teaching materials (see Appendix below) that focused students on implicature interpretation. On the basis of Bouton’s albeit tentative findings (3.3.1), English teachers should draw attention to how utterances take on different meanings in different contexts, discuss when different implicatures are appropriate, how they function, and how they compare to implicatures from the students’ native cultures (ibid:60-61). Alongside raising awareness of the native culture to help with relevance-based implicatures, I believe teachers can develop new materials, adapt old ones, highlight implicatures when they arise and expose students to examples through film, situation comedies, Twitter postings (As Twitter postings are limited to 140 characters, ‘tweets’ have to be short and succinct. Popular tweets often contain implicatures used to present an attitude or an innuendo, and in most cases, to be witty and humorous), and other aspects of pop culture, without wasting valuable class time.

There are also times when interlocutors fail to realise that learners are infringing a maxim or opting out.  Students can avoid generating unintended implicatures or creating wrong impressions by using discourse markers:

forgive me if I’m wrong’ (non-observance of quality maxims),

by the way’ (non-observance of relevance maxim),

for want of a better word’ (non-observance of manner maxim),

to cut a long story short’ (when faced with a quantity-quality clash).

Few coursebooks (the book ‘Conversation Lessons’ (Martinez, 1997) comes closest to presenting such lexical items in context. Most coursebooks e.g. Cutting Edge, Inside Out, and Vocabulary in Use Upper Intermediate (McCarthy and O’Dell, 2001:56-57) touch on them briefly but tend to present them in a de-contextualised, isolated fashion) focus on teaching such adverbials, perhaps not understanding that they could be essential to successful communication and deserve more classroom time. Teachers could work with emergent language, providing and highlighting the use of such lexical items when the context arises.

As English becomes an international language and is learnt as a tool to communicate with NNS (Jenkins, 2003:4), it is undeniable that the cross-cultural interpretation of utterances faces a new challenge. Currently, most intermediate-level NNS would negotiate meaning while giving each other a wide berth when interpreting implicatures. However, as most countries are now insisting on the learning of English from a young age, we will soon have a new generation of proficient English speakers confronted with a new breed of potential misunderstandings when communicating cross-culturally. The awareness of implicature interpretation in different cultures will necessitate more attention in future EFL classrooms, and a new understanding of CP will be called for.


5.      Conclusion

Grice’s principles have offered the linguistic world a way of looking at conversations beyond the words and opened up new areas of exploration in the area of pragmatics, but the implications of these studies have yet to be filtered through to the English language classroom. For learners who are immersed in an English/American culture, it is essential that we help them to adapt by raising awareness of implicature interpretation. As we move into a new age of English as an international language, the subject of implicatures would need further study and applications to teaching.


Do you deal with pragmatics and discourse in your classroom? How can we help learners become more effective interactants through understanding the Co-operative Principle better? Comments with any practical ideas you may have will much appreciated. Meanwhile, here’s one practical worksheet developed by Bouton (1999) to get us started, followed by a bibliography to all three parts of this series. Thanks for following. I hope it has helped somehow.



Sample materials developed as handouts for teaching implicature

Lesson 1: Introduction and Pope Q Formula

Introduction: In many languages, including English, people often do not say exactly what they intend to communicate. Sometimes in English we imply information and expect others to figure out what we really mean. One kind of indirect speech is called conversational implicature. Conversational implicature take different forms, but they are always a result of the interaction between language and context. The examples below illustrate one kind of conversational implicature.

Instructions: Read the following examples and answer the question following each example.

Example 1: Paul and Georgette are discussing a mutual acquaintance who is always running late.

Paul: Do you expect Sheila to be late for the party tonight?

Georgette: Is the pope Catholic?

What is the answer to Georgette’s question? What do you think she means?

Example 2: Celia and Ron are discussing their boss, who is very unpleasant.

Celia: So, do you think Mr. Stingy will give me a raise?

Ron: Do cows fly?

What does Ron mean?

Example 3: Larry and Charlene are talking about a test they recently took.

Charlene: Do you think you got an “A” on the test?

Larry: Do chickens have lips?

What does Larry mean?

Discussion: In each of the examples above, the second person answers the first person with another question, so we have the formula Question 1+Question 2 = Answer. In each case, the obvious answer to Question 2 becomes the answer to Question 1 also. For example, in the first case, Paul asks, “Do you expect Sheila to be late for the party tonight?” (Question 1). Georgette answers, “Is the pope Catholic?” (Question 2). Because the obvious answer to Question 2 is “yes” (the pope is the leader of the Catholics), Georgette’s answer to Paul is also “yes.”

Bouton, L.F. (1999:67-69) ‘Developing non-native speaker skills in interpreting conversational implicatures in English: Explicit teaching can ease the process’, in Hinkel, E. (ed.) (1999) Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.



Austin J.L. (1962) How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bouton, L.F. (1988) ‘A cross-cultural study of ability to interpret implicatures in English’. World Englishes 7/2: 183-196.

Bouton, L.F. (1994) ‘Can NNS Skill in Interpreting Implicature in American English Be Improved Through Explicit Instruction?: A Pilot Study’. Pragmatics and Language Learning Monograph Series 5: 89-109.

Bouton, L.F. (1999) ‘Developing non-native speaker skills in interpreting conversational Implicatures in English: Explicit teaching can ease the process’. In Hinkel, E. (ed.) (1999) Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

Brown, G. and G. Yule (1983) Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, D. (2001) Working with Spoken Discourse. London: Sage.

Carston, R. (2004) A review of Stephen Levinson Presumptive Meanings. Journal of Linguistics 40/1: 181-186.

Clyne, M.G. (1994) Inter-cultural communication at work: cultural values in discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, A.D. (1996) Speech Acts. In McKay S.L. and N.H. Hornberger (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cook, G. (1989) Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davis, W.A. (1998) Implicature: Intention, convention, and principle in the failure of Gricean theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fox, K. (2004) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder.

Gazdar, G. (1979) Pragmatics: Implicature, Presupposition and Logical form. New York: Academic Press, Inc.

Grice, H.P. (1975) ‘Logic and conversation’. In P. Cole and J. Morgan (eds.) Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts.New York: Academic Press.

Grice, H.P (1978) ‘Further Notes on Logic and Conversation’. In Kasher, A. (ed.) (1998) Pragmatics vol. IV: 162-178. London: Routledge.

Hatim, B. (1997) Communication Across Cultures: Translation Theory and Contrastive Text Linguistics. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Jenkins, J. (2003) World Englishes: A resource book for students. London:Routledge.

Keenan, E.O. (1976) ‘The Universality of Conversational Postulates’. In Kasher, A. (ed.) (1998) Pragmatics vol. IV: 215-229. London: Routledge.

Leech, G. (1983) Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman

Levinson, S. (1983) Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinson, S. (2000) Presumptive Meanings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Martinez, R. (1997) Conversation Lessons: The Natural Language of Conversation. Hove England: Language Teaching Publications.

McCarthy, M. and F. O’Dell (2001) English Vocabulary in Use: Upper Intermediate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer-Oatey, H. and W. Jiang (2003) ‘Explaining Cross-Cultural Pragmatic Findings: moving from politeness maxims to sociopragmatic interactional principles (SIPs)’. Journal of Pragmatics 35:1633-1650.

Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1986) Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1987) ‘Précis of Relevance’, in Kasher, A. (ed.) (1998), Pragmatics vol. V: 82-115. London: Routledge.

Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (2004) ‘Relevance Theory’, in Horn, L. and G. Ward (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thomas, J. (1995) Meaning in Interaction: an Introduction to Pragmatics. London: Longman.

Wierzbicka, A. (1985) A semantic metalanguage for a cross-cultural comparison of speech acts and speech genres. Language in Society 14: 491-514.

Yule, G. (1996) Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

6 thoughts on “Understanding Discourse – Grice and Implicatures Part 3”

  1. I think that markers practice can improve language skills in conversations as regards understanding a different expression and also producing it too. Students can find not idiomatic phrases such as of course to say yes, impossible to say no.
    Thank you Luisa

  2. Yes. I run a workshop in PwC called “Chinglish to English” – not very PC I know but the learners know what the workshop is about from the title.

    In one part of the workshop, we look at some things Chinese people say that would have a completely different meaning to an average person with no knowledge of Chinese. For example, “Have you eaten yet?” “You’ve arrived!” “I’ll go first” (when ending a conversation at the water cooler), “You’re getting fat!” and “I’ll play with myself after work”. Some of these phrases may cause confusion while others may actually cause embarrassment when people start giggling.

    I hand out common everyday phrases in Chinese with the context it’s used in and ask the students to think of appropriate English translations for that context. We then discuss why “have you eaten yet?” should only be used if it’s going to be followed by an invite to eat together and people from other cultures may not take kindly to being told they’re ‘getting fat’ and hearing somebody say “you’ve arrived” might make one think they’re late. And why the verb ‘play’ should not be used reflexively, unless, you know…

    Important stuff, especially in ESP/business English where there’s a lot riding on not upsetting potential business partners. “Hi Martin! You’ve arrived! Have you eaten yet? I’ve noticed you’re getting fat.”

    My own Chinese is still barely functional and I saw a neighbour today minus his dog. I asked in Chinese “Oh where’s your dog?”. The neighbour was really taken aback until my Chinese wife came to the rescue to rephrase my question to “Oh, you haven’t got your dog with you today?” This he understood and told us that he’d already taken Fei Fei for her morning walk. I turned to my wife to confirm that in Chinese, asking where something or somebody is does not mean “It’s not here/with you”. Something worth teaching:

    A: Where’s your lovely wife?
    B: Oh she’s got some work to finish – she sends her regards. (not “she’s at home/her office”).

    On a similar note, I recently sent an email to a colleague in Hong Kong where I wrote “Sorry for not replying sooner – I’ve been up to my neck in work.” My colleague phoned me later and the first thing she asked was if I’d been to see a doctor about my neck.

    In the Chinese workplace, pragmatics has a big role to play when expat managers communicate with Chinese team members. Asking “Do you think we can…?” will always be met with the answer “yes” no matter how impossible the proposition is. I also know (now) that when I hear “The project maybe has a little problem”, I should assume the project has come to a complete halt due to an insurmountable issue.


    1. Thanks, Chris, for your fantastic comments!
      It gives such a insightful and interesting overview of cross-cultural pragmatics and discourse and absolutely deserves to be a blogpost in its own right!
      The course you run does sound very useful indeed, and as Chinese is my other first language, I totally relate to some of the examples you’ve given here. Interestingly, the use of pragmatics sometimes is so embedded in your being that you don’t even notice until things don’t go the way you expect them to.

      I particularly love the ‘Where’s your dog?’ example because it shows that a simple question like this could have completely different connotations in a different language and culture. When I was reading it, I had to actually translate that into Chinese and envision the scenario you described before realising that you were totally right about it being inappropriate and perplexing in that context. Fascinating stuff!

      The other thing that made me laugh was the ‘I’ve noticed you’re getting fat’ comment.
      I’ve had a few students here tell their English teachers that and cause quite a bit of offence…
      I’m still trying to get my head around this cultural nugget because I’ve seen it in Singapore too.
      (And although I grew up there, I’ve always thought it offensive…which perhaps is one of the things that shows how un-Singaporean I am?)

      Maybe you can enlighten me…what is the deal with telling people they’re fat. Is it not rude?


      1. About “Your getting fat” – Well I’ve been on the receiving end of that one quite a few times – as you may remember from the Glasgow PCE and conference itself, I’m not exactly what you’d call a Chippendale myself. When I asked about this “you’re so fat” thing, I was told it’s got two reasons:

        1. China is a country which has suffered famine in living memory. “Getting fat” shows you’re doing well and friends and family don’t need to worry about you.

        2. Chinese people say things like this to show that they see themselves as close to you. It’s rather like British men calling their best friends ‘bastard’ (it really confuses the Germans!). I know that when I say “please” and “thank you” to my wife in public (in Chinese), people look perplexed. I often hear young Chinese girls telling their boyfriends “You’re really disgusting!” (Ni zhen taoyan!) and then they both laugh as they walk down the street hand in hand.

        Well, that’s what I was told. I’m willing to believe it if only because it takes the sting out of constantly hearing “Chris, you’re so fat!” and “Your big belly is so cute!” In a culture where physical contact between genders is still a taboo, I’m still getting used to female office colleagues who give my belly a little pat and wink at me as they walk past.

        You do need to have a thick skin and open mind!


        1. Your comment really made me laugh out loud, Chris.

          Back when I was in my teens and 20s, when flirting with boys in Singapore, I used to hit them on the arm (not dissimilar to your ‘You’re so disgusting!’ example)…I’ve noticed that Korean boys hit the girls on the head in a friendly manner quite a lot too. Little did I know that this action was not universal.

          So when I came to the UK and did that, the men thought I was either 1. crazy, or 2. acting like a child and should grow up.

          My theory is this: As you said, it is a culture where physical contact between genders is a taboo, and hugging and kissing is not common practice. So when one likes another person, they find other ways of making that physical contact. Thus, hitting someone provides a chance of touching them…

          Does that theory fly with you?


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