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.


Understanding Discourse – Grice and Implicatures Part 2

In my last post, I looked at Grice’s Co-operative Principle (CP) and how the observance or flouting of the maxims creates meaning and implicatures in interaction.

In this post, I will look at the criticisms of Grice’s theories and the alternatives to CP that were proposed. I will also examine the universality of CP and how they might or might not be applicable across cultures, with a special section dedicated to the use of irony and British humour.



3.      Criticisms of Grice

Critics say that Grice’s maxims are not only inapplicable ubiquitously, but that he had not used the terms in 2.2.4 consistently. CP has also been criticised on a number of counts: lack of distinctions between the maxims and between types of non-observance when calculating implicature, and the inability to withstand evidence of real language use (Thomas 1995, Gazdar 1979, Leech 1983). However, the most substantial criticisms are as follows.


3.1     Relevance Theory


Sperber and Wilson (2004) questioned the need for CP’s maxims, saying that expectations of relevance alone are enough to guide the hearer towards speaker meaning. They suggest that the search for relevance is basic to human cognitive systems (Cognitive Principle), and when utterances are made, interlocutors combine the input with available background information, while using the least processing effort required, to derive meaning. Consider:


(xiv)     I’ll google it.


Using the input plus the background knowledge (which can also be described as one’s schema of the internet) that ‘Google’ is an online search engine, one understands that the speaker intends to search online for the information. Grice was criticised for failing to address such loose uses of language, and for treating metaphor, hyperbole and irony equally as flouting of the Quality maxim (ibid). Relevance theorists claim that besides irony, all the above loose uses of language are used to convey optimal relevance more economically (ibid), while irony involves ‘an expression of tacitly dissociative attitudes’ (ibid:272) and requires a higher order of meta-representational ability.

Not believing in the co-operative nature of humankind, Sperber and Wilson (1986) suggests a Communicative Principle where the audience would only pay attention if the stimulus is worth processing and relevant enough, and that the speaker, might have to be capable and willing to draw the hearer’s attention to his/her intentions, away from competing stimuli. Grice was criticised for seeing speaker unwillingness as a violation and thus not conveying implicatures (ibid 2004), although I worry about such a misrepresentation, considering that a violation simply comes from a speaker not wanting to convey the implicature, and does not mean the hearer cannot infer from the unwillingness. Arguably, Grice tended to focus on implicature generation and less on hearer interpretation strategies.


3.2     Politeness Principle (PP)


(xv)      I don’t suppose you’ve time to spare?


Based on claims that sentences do not always have information-bearing functions, PP is proposed as a necessary complement to CP (Leech 1983:80), to explain indirect sentences like (xv) which seem to violate the quantity maxim.  While CP enables communication through the assumption of cooperativeness, PP allows for such co-operation by regulating social equilibrium and relations (ibid:82). Thus, PP is seen to override CP at times.

The Ironic Principle (IP), however, allows for PP to be exploited in order to uphold CP (ibid:82-83). In (x), Sue is afraid of causing offence to Brian and makes light of Brian’s flaws, allowing him to infer her real meaning through indirectness, by way of irony, ‘an “honest” form of apparent deception, at the expense of politeness’(ibid:83).

While CP has been criticised repeatedly for not being universal, PP allows for the study of how such principles are variable on different dimensions and are exploited differently in different societies (ibid:84). Nevertheless, how much of CP is non-universal?


3.3     The universality of CP


I have found disagreement over whether Grice believed in the universal application of CP. Spencer-Oatey and Jiang (2003) claimed that according to Grice, they were universal principles of language use. Leech (1983:80) believed that no claim has been made that CP applied in the same way everywhere. Sperber & Wilson (1987) and Davis (1998), however, both think of implicatures as social conventions, and therefore, interlinguistic, and lists quantity implicatures and irony as common to many languages (ibid:186). Gazdar (1979:54), on the other hand, takes Grice’s claim that CP is something ‘reasonable for us to follow’ to mean that the nature of the maxims are universal, and argues that Grice’s maxims ‘cannot be defended as universal principles of conversation’ (ibid:55). Clyne (1994:12) believes the maxims are anglo-centric, of limited relevance, and need reformulation to take non-English cultures into consideration.

Examples in 2.2.1 showed how some adherence to the maxims is already instinctive in my learners, but consider (iii) again. In parts of Northern Greece, ‘children’ conveys the GCI of ‘sons’. When interlocutors do not share the same schema of the word ‘children’, misunderstandings could arise. Considering the four factors Grice (1975) purported interlocutors use to communicate through implicature: the literal meaning of the utterance, the roles and expectations of participants, the situation, context and nature of the conversation, and the world around the participants, we can deduce that people from different cultural backgrounds would have different expectations, roles and world views, and see the contexts and nature of conversations differently (Bouton, 1999).  Van Dijik’s (1977 in Brown and Yule 1983) Assumed Normality of the World suggests that our reactions to particular communicative situations are learnt through our experience of interpreting them in prior similar contexts. If the respondent’s sociocultural (Sociocultural abilities refer to the respondent’s skills at selecting speech act strategies appropriate to the culture involved, the age and sex, the social class and occupations and roles and status of the participants in interaction) and sociolinguistic abilities (Sociolinguistic abilities refer to the respondents’ skill at selecting linguistic forms to express a particular speech act strategy and their control over utterance’s register of formality) must be considered for the success of speech acts (Cohen, 1996), so it must be when interpreting implicatures.


3.3.1    Bouton’s cross-cultural study

Bouton (1988) found a significant difference between the way NS and non-native speakers (NNS) interpreted the implicatures presented within contextualised dialogues (the dialogues were presented on paper and lacked the paralinguistic and non-linguistic features that would normally be present when interpreting implicatures. This may have had some effect on his findings.), with the Germans/Spanish/Portuguese having more similar scores to NS than the Chinese/Japanese. We could perhaps conclude that certain cultures have more similar expectations and world views to the target culture than others.

Subsequently, Bouton (1994) noted that without explicit instruction, there was increased mastery of implicature types as time passes (particularly, those based on flouting the relevance maxim), although progress was slow after 17 months, and irony remained a problem even for those immersed for 54 months. The types of implicatures that remained difficult for those immersed for more than 17 months, however, were the ones that improved when a separate group was given explicit classroom instruction. Such instruction, conversely, did not help them improve on relevance-based implicatures.

Bouton (1999) believed implicatures differed in their opaqueness to NNS. Relevance-based implicatures required a lot of background information to interpret (idiosyncratic implicatures) and seemed impervious to teaching efforts, but depended on the building up of native-culture schemata over time. Formulaic implicatures, such as PopeQ (Bouton (1988) uses the term PopeQ to refer to typical ironic questions used in answer to another question. Other examples include, ‘Can ducks swim?’ and ‘Do bears sh*t in the woods?’) [see (xvi)], indirect criticism [see (viii)] and irony, however, have pattern-based structural or semantic clues, and these patterns can be taught, recognised, and used.



Deb:    Do you like ice-cream?

Derren: Is the pope Catholic?


3.3.2    Irony and English humour


Much cross-cultural misinterpretation of implicatures concerns sense of humour. Consider:



(Pointing to a bottle of Coke on the table)

Nao:    Is this coca-cola?

Me:     It’s a pizza.


The Japanese Nao, who thought I had meant to treat her like a fool, was puzzled. Some months later, Nao said, ‘I understand! British humour is about bullying others!’ Both the Japanese and Chinese have one expression to mean irony and sarcasm, and being ironic carries a negative connotation of insult. Although Nao had identified the semantic pattern in irony, her sense that the English found humour in bullying others was misplaced.

Anthropologist Fox (2004:65-66) notes that the English treat irony as ‘a constant, a normal element of ordinary, everyday conversation’ and the ‘dominant ingredient in English humour’. What makes irony even more difficult for foreigners is that a deadpan face is the expected norm. Fox sympathises with foreigners, admitting that self-parodying is part of the English psyche deeply schematised in the culture.
If spoken irony is difficult for NNS, written irony poses a bigger problem. Hatim (1997) attributes irony to the English preference for understatements and the cryptic, enabling one  to express an attitude without saying very much. Irony is hard to preserve when translating written texts. Hatim (ibid:196) suggests that Arabic is intolerant to such opaqueness, with translators of irony needing to flout the quantity maxim by being over-informative.


3.3.3    Making CP universal


Keenan’s (1976) investigation in Malagasy culture has spurred criticisms that Grice’s principles were monocentric and full of assumptions based on Anglo-Saxon norms and culture (Wierzbicka 1985, Gazdar 1979). Keenan (1976) admits the Malagasy community are not uninformative, but explains that Grice’s maxims do not hold in some societies. However, perhaps it is the critics themselves who have been monocentric and have interpreted Grice’s words from an English perspective. Arguably, being ‘as informative as required’ would stand with the Malagasy speakers if the ‘information’ expected and the schema of what ‘information’ entails differs in their culture. I believe CP could be realised in different cultures in different ways. Consider.


(xviii)               Returning an unidentified missed call,

Singaporean: Hello. Who called?


Clyne (1994:192) states that in both European and East/South-east Asian culture, the more information/knowledge provided, the better. Singaporeans, however, sometimes seem comfortable with the bare information minus the niceties, so we could argue that what is ‘required’ depends on cultural variation and situational expectations. Clyne (ibid:194) proposes a set of revised ‘maxims’ (Appendix) to make CP more universal by considering different cultural norms and expectations when applying Grice’s principles. How can teachers then apply this knowledge to help students adapt to a foreign environment?



In the last part of this series, I will be looking at the implications that Grice’s theories have on teaching and asking for ideas as to how this could be relevant to what we practitioners do in the language classroom.




Clyne (1994)’s revised maxims

Quantity:     A single maxim – ‘Make your contribution as informative as is required for

the purpose of the discourse, within the bounds of the discourse parameters of the given culture.’


Quality:        Supermaxim – ‘Try to make your contribution one for which you can take

responsibility within your own cultural norms.’

Maxims (1) ‘Do not say what you believe to be in opposition to your cultural

norms of truth, harmony, charity, and/or respect.’

(2) Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.’[1]


Manner:       The supermaxim can be retained in its original form – ‘Be perspicacious.’[2]

Maxims (1) ‘Do not make it any more difficult to understand than may be

dictated by questions of face and authority.’

(2) Avoid ambiguity unless it is in the interests of politeness or of

maintaining a dignity-driven cultural core value, such as harmony,

charity or respect.’

(3) ‘Make your contribution the appropriate length required by the

nature and purpose of the exchange and the discourse parameters

of your culture.’

(4) ‘Structure your discourse according to the requirements of your



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



[1] Maxim (2) of Quality and Maxim (2) of Manner have disclaimers put onto them.

For more detail, see Clyne (1994:194).

[2] I believe there is a typing error here. Grice’s original maxim of Manner was to be ‘perspicuous’, rather than ‘perspicacious’. This slightly changes the meaning of the maxim, which I assume was not the intention.

Understanding Discourse – Grice and Implicatures Part 1

Ever since my last blogpost about discourse, I have been receiving requests to delve a little deeper into the area of pragmatics. It reminded me that a previous BESIG interview about pragmatics and politeness had led to the same kind of requests which I had not had the time to devote to before.

This has spurred me to share some of the reading and research I had previously done on this subject here.

Here’s Part 1 (of 3) of a summary of Grice’s maxims and implicatures – often considered to be the basis of any study into the pragmatics of language.

The bibliography will follow at the end of Part 3.



1.      Introduction

 1.1    Why Grice?

A lot has been written about the work of the philosopher H. Paul Grice and his contribution to the study of pragmatics. After a long spate of linguistic study focused solely on truth conditional semantics and the grammar, syntax and semantic meanings of words controlled fully by the speaker, Grice was the first to propose a set of principles to describe the nature of conversation as a co-operation between the participants (Cook 1989), and his Co-operative Principles (CP) and maxims have been the basis for the further exploration of the nature and power of what a speaker means and implies, and how it is understood by the hearer. His notion of conversational implicature is believed to be ‘one of the single most important ideas in pragmatics’ ( Levinson 1983:97) and even his greatest critics, such as Davis (1998:1) admitted his theories to be an ‘important phenomenon’, a major achievement’ and ‘a breakthrough in linguistics’.

In order to understand Grice’s theories, it is perhaps useful to first consider J.L. Austin’s ideas on language. Austin was Grice’s teacher at Oxford University, and was reacting against his contemporaries’ views that language was full of ambiguities, imprecision and contradictions which needed to be refined and purified (Thomas 1995:29), by purporting that the way ordinary people used everyday language could shed light on how people identified the distinctions that were worth making (Austin 1962). Consider this example.


Emma: Can you find out if the tube is running?

Tom: The internet is down.

On a purely semantic level, it seems that Emma is asking about Tom’s ability to obtain the information about the London underground and Tom’s answer seems to be an irrelevant one about the internet not working. However, the mere locutionary force of the words does not help us to understand that Emma’s question was a request for help and Tom’s answer implied that he was unable to do so. Austin (1962) introduced the idea of there being an illocutionary force in such implicit perfomatives, (in this case, that of the functions request and refusal) which we use in speech to produce an effect.

Grice’s systematic study of such cases where there was a significant difference between speaker meaning and semantic meaning led him to put forward a theory that could explain how we bridge the gap between the locutionary and illocutionary force of a context-dependent utterance in order to make sense of each other. While his principles bring logic into the use of language, they also account for the hedging used in everyday language (by the way, I might be wrong but…), and provide explanations for the phenomena of metaphors, irony, tautology, and hyperbole.

1.2     Grice in the foreign language classroom

Some teachers might argue that the interpretation of an utterance is universal, and that because students can already interact and communicate in their L1, the time in the classroom should be spent on the formal skills and knowledge of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar (Cook 1989). As a result of this assumption, the indirect communication explained by Grice’s implicatures are often not highlighted or dealt with in language coursebooks (Bouton, in Hinkel 1999).

However, if we were to consider the fact that the same utterance in the same context could be interpreted differently in different cultures (Keenan 1976, Bouton 1988 & 1994), it might explain why even fairly advanced students have trouble understanding the nuances of utterances, the intentions of the speakers, and an area of particular interest to me, English humour. This causes frequent cases of misunderstanding and confusion to the language student who lives among native speakers and/or is exposed to comedy and films through the global dominance of Hollywood. Perhaps the interpretation of utterances is not wholly transferable as previously assumed, and needs to be covered in the English language classroom. The issue of the universality of CP and its maxims will be dealt with after we look at the principles themselves.



2.      The Co-operative Principle (CP) and the Maxims

2.1     What is CP?

In his paper Logic and Conversation, Grice (1975) proposed that all talk exchanges are cooperative efforts where participants recognise a common purpose or mutually-accepted direction of the conversation. If we were to take the dialogue between Emma and Tom in (i)  at face value (i.e. the locutionary force of the utterance), the utterances seem disconnected, and thus irrational and illogical. The assumption that Emma and Tom were guided by the cooperative principle helps us to understand that Tom’s reply is indeed a relevant answer to Emma’s question. Grice’s CP is worded as follows:

Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

(Grice 1975:45)

Grice then goes on to specify how CP is followed in the form of 4 maxims.

Quantity:        1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Quality:           1. Do not say what you believe to be false.

2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Relation:          1. Be relevant

Manner:          Be perspicuous.

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity)
  4. Be orderly.


Despite the unfortunate name of ‘maxims’ and use of imperatives, Grice (1975) emphasises that they describe ways of people’s behaviour which they have learned from childhood, and that they are not only something we should follow but that which is rational and ‘reasonable for us to follow’. Levinson (1983) recognises them as assumptions and guidelines that help us to use language effectively and efficiently, and thus should not be considered as rules of any sort. CP is by no means idealising human beings as having an intrinsically co-operative or altruistic personality, but refers to the assumptions about communication one operates on, even when we are in an argument (Cameron, 2001).


2.2     Implicatures

The term ‘implicature’ was coined by Grice (1975) to account for what the speaker implied, suggested or meant, as opposed to the semantic meaning of the words said. The conveyance of implicature enables one to determine the meaning of an utterance via inference because of the assumption that the participants of a conversation are adhering to CP and its maxims (Yule, 1996).

In what Grice (1975) terms ‘conventional implicatures’, the conventional meaning of the words conveys what the utterance implies and is not based on CP, as the following illustrates:

(ii) He was on social welfare but was not lazy.

The above sentence implies that people on welfare are expected to be lazy since the word ‘but’ generates the implicature that what follows will contrast the presupposed expectation. Thomas (1995) lists words like ‘but’, ‘even’, ‘therefore’, ‘yet’ and ‘for’ as words that could carry conventional implicatures. As such words are not context-dependent for their interpretation, and are often covered in the formal studies of a language learner, I shall move on to a category of more interest to the pragmaticist, conversational implicatures, that which is communicated based on the assumptions about a conversation’s rational nature, as stated in CP and its maxims (Levinson, 2000).

The nature of conversational implicatures have been characterised by Grice (1975) as such. In order for the hearer to work out the implicature, the following rationalising takes place:

1)    The speaker is observing the maxims.

2)    The speaker is saying X to imply Y. In fact, he would not say X if he did not want to imply Y.

3)    The speaker knows that the listener would understand Y from X, and intends it to be so.

There has been much debate over the categorization and definitions of conversational implicatures, which has led me to sub-categorized this section in a controversial way. Grice (ibid) himself provides the sub-categories of generalised conversational implicatures (GCIs) and particularized conversational implicatures (PCIs). Levinson (1983:104), however, introduces the term standard implicatures to refer the ones expressed when a speaker is observing the maxims, while more complex implicatures are communicated through what Grice (ibid) calls the  flouting of the maxims in the form of PCIs.


2.2.1    Standard Implicatures

Although Grice (1978) indicated that he wished to withhold the term implicature from inferences that only express the maxims themselves (as opposed to flouting the maxims), I have started with this category in order to illustrate how we unconsciously abide by CP and use it to make sense of the utterances we hear. I shall use examples in my classroom to show that, sometimes, the observance of CP might be universal and transferable from my learners’ L1.




Me: How many siblings have you got?

Student: I have 5 brothers.

I can infer from common understanding of this maxim, albeit unconscious, that the student is being as informative as possible and thus implying that he has no more than 5 brothers, although semantically, the statement could imply that he has more than 5 brothers.



When the student asserts that he has 5 brothers in (ii), I believe he indeed has 5 brothers and has adequate evidence that this is so.

Consider also this question.

(iv)      Student:  What does ‘greedy’ mean?

This implicates that the student is asking this question sincerely, does not know what ‘greedy’ means, and requires this information. (Levinson, 1983)




Me: Is Claudio in school today?

Student: He’s sick.

The student’s utterance is not a non-sequitor one. It implies that Maria was not in school by giving the reason that she was ill.



(vi)      Student:  I did my homework and went to sleep.

Although the ‘and’ seems ambiguous semantically and could be taken to mean ‘also’, the meaning ‘and then’ is understood.


2.2.2    Generalized Conversational Implicatures

Although most discourse analysts tend to assume that pragmatically-inferred meaning is always dependent on the context surrounding the utterance and the observance of CP and its maxims (Carston, 2004), GCIs are those based on ‘general expectations of how language is normally used’ (Levinson 2000:22), and no special background knowledge of the context is required to make the inferences (Yule 1996). GCIs could be said to be somewhere between conventional implicatures and PCIs.

(vii)     He went out with a woman.

The sentence implicates that the woman is not his wife, family member or platonic friend (Grice 1975).


Also consider,

(viii)    I repaired a roof.

Without the use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’, one can infer that this was not the speaker’s roof.


2.2.3    Particularized Conversational Implicatures

In situations where the speaker blatantly fails to observe a maxim, he is ‘flouting’ and such flouting is used to generate PCIs, which the hearer will in turn infer from. The procedure is termed ‘exploitation’. (Grice 1975)


Exploiting the maxim of Quantity

(ix)       Sharon has recently watched a film that was hyped up in the media as sensational.

David:   How was the film?

Sharon:  Well, the costumes were nice.

Sharon is flouting the maxim of quantity by not giving enough of the information required by David’s question. David knows that Sharon has flouted the maxim but has no reason to think that Sharon is being uncooperative. He, thus, infers that Sharon is implicating that the film was awful. Such flouting is used to create what is called indirect criticism (Bouton, 1994).

Tautologies like ‘a lie is a lie’ or ‘first introduced’ could be seen as flouting this maxim by unnecessary repetition. However, the implicature generated by the former might be telling us that the speaker is unwilling to make exceptions to what might be meant as a white lie, and the later might implicate the first occasion when something was introduced (e.g. the term ‘implicature’), although it  might have been introduced by several people in different places.


Exploiting the maxim of Quality

(x)        You are an angel.  (metaphor)


(xi)       Upon seeing Shelly online every time Michael logs on, he comments,

Michael: You are always online.

Shelly: Me? Never! I never use the internet.   (irony)



Brian has just burnt his dinner.

Anna: You’re such a great cook.  (sarcasm/irony)


(xiii)     I can eat a horse.  (hyperbole)


(xiv)     Upon seeing that a wedding would cost £30,000,

Rakesh: It’s a bit expensive, isn’t it?  (understatement)

The above examples all flout the maxim of quality and both participants expect each other to realise that the utterances are not to be taken literally. They could be used as stylistic devices, to create humour, or just simply to be interesting.

Notice, however, that each of these utterances requires a different set of reasoning to work out the implicature intended. (x) requires the hearer to make comparisons between the concept of an angel and one who is kind and saves another, the semantic meanings of (xi) and (xii) are opposites of the implicated meaning, while (xii) is overstates and (xiv) understates what the speaker really means. Grice does not seem to explain how an interlocutor is to know which set of reasoning to use when such flouting is carried out.


Exploiting the maxim of Relevance


Dale accidentally mentions Steve’s ex-wife in a conversation with Steve and Rachel. Rachel quickly changes the topic.

Rachel: What do you think of the coffee here?

Rachel’s blatant flouting of the maxim is used to show Dale that he has committed a social faux pax and in danger of treading dangerous waters.


Exploiting the maxim of Manner


The parents are talking in front of their toddler.

Dad: We won’t B-U-Y the T-O-Y today.

Through being intentionally ambiguous and spelling out the words, the father is implicating that there’s something he can’t say directly and expects the mother to infer that he does not want the child to know what they are talking about.


2.2.4    Other categories of non-observance

It is not always that the non-observance of a maxim is done blatantly with the intention of creating an implicature. Grice (1975:49) mentions several ways where a maxim is not adhered to, aside from flouting: violating, violating because of a clash and opting out. He later added a fourth category: infringing; and others have purported a fifth: suspending (Thomas1995:72).

Grice has not only been criticised for not always using the terms consistently but also for failing to address the issue of how the hearer is to distinguish between the types of non-observance involved in working out the implicature intended (ibid:90). This could explain why some girls spend hours trying to work out what the voicemail message left by their date really implies. The following categories might somehow be controversial as different writers have chosen to group them in different ways.



Unlike flouting, violation is not meant to be noticed by the hearer perhaps because the speaker intends to deceive or hold back information (Cameron, 2001:78). Some speakers, such as politicians, might be intentionally ambiguous so as not to commit themselves to a proposition (ibid), hence violating a maxim.



Grice (1975) explains that sometimes a speaker cannot fulfil one maxim without violating another, and is faced with a clash. In example (xvii), the student cannot answer the question fully without being long-winded, and chooses to forgo the maxim of quality.


Teacher: What did you do this weekend?

Student:  Nothing.


Opting out

One might opt out of a maxim by clearly showing that he is unable to cooperate, perhaps due to legal or ethical reasons, or the need to protect someone else (Thomas, 1995). The speaker might say, ‘I can’t tell you that,’ or ‘I promised not to say’.



A speaker sometimes infringes a maxim because he is unable to abide by it (ibid). Infringement could take place if the speaker is not particularly eloquent, is drunk, or simply can’t speak the language well (as with a child or foreign language speaker). Here is a classroom example where my student infringes the maxims of quantity and manner due to a lack of language skills.


Teacher: How was your holiday?

Student: Nice.



Critics of Grice claim that there are language communities that do not adhere to the maxims (Gazdar, 1979), and Keenan’s (1976) example of Malagasy speakers, who often make their conversations as uninformative as possible (see section 3.2), is often used to suggest that there are occasions on which Grice’s maxims are inapplicable and need to be suspended. Alongside Gazdar and Keenan, Grice has had many critics since he first postulated the CP and its maxims.


In the next part, I will be looking at the criticisms of Grice’s theories, including the exploration of the politeness principle, the universality of the Co-operative Principle, and how English humour and irony might or might not apply in cross-cultural contexts.