Conversational Implicature –Grice’s theory of meaning

SummaryGrice’s theory of conversational implicature suggests that speakers can understand each other’s intentions through inferences they make out of respect of certain maxims. These maxims are neither arbitrary nor conventional; rather they’re rational and observed in human behaviour in addition to Language.

Conversational Implicature –Grice’s theory of meaning

Conversational Implicature often referred to as Implicature, is a concept coined by the British linguist Herbert Paul Grice to account for the pragmatic meaning of utterances i.e.speakers’ intentions behind producing certain utterances. The concept and its salient ideas were initially introduced during Grice’s William James Lectures, which he delivered at Harvard in 1967

The importance of Grice’s theory

The theory of Conversational Implicature received a noticeable attention in pragmatics for the following two main reasons:1.     It has offered a profound understanding of linguistic phenomena, which semantics failed to reach.2.     It has accounted for the human use of language, and how it is possible to “mean more than what is actually said” (Levinson, 1983). In other words. The concept of conversational implicature has provided an analysis of how speakers can send hidden messages through limited combined sounds i.e. words and sentences, whose literal meaning does not convey.

Grice’s maxims of conversation:

According to Grice, every conversation is guided and conducted under respect of specific assumptions or general principles which grant the effectiveness of language use and successful message delivery. He called these assumptions maxims of conversation. These maxims or general principles, as already said, lead to an efficient cooperative use of language. These maxims are highlighted below:

The cooperative principle:

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

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The maxim of Quality:

try to make your contribution one that is true, specifically: 
(i) do not say what you believe to be false
(ii) do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence

The maxim of Quantity:


(i) make your contribution as informative as is required
for the current purposes of the exchange
(ii) do not make your contribution more informative than is required

The maxim of Relevance

make your contributions relevant

The maxim of Manner


be perspicuous, and specifically:
(i) avoid obscurity
(ii) avoid ambiguity
(iii) be brief
(iv) be orderly (Grice, 1981)Hence, these maxims are specifying the framework within which interlocutors seem to contribute to an efficient, rational and mutually intelligible conversation in a cooperative manner. However, such maxims are not permanently adhered to by speakers i.e. we don’t seem to talk like that all the time. We may often violate the respect of one maxim or two, yet, according to Grice, the cooperative nature of conversations is still maintained at a deeper level. Consider the following example:

  • A “Have you see John?”
  • B “There is a blue Volkswagen out there, near Bob’s house”

 Superficially, B’s respond seem to have violated, at least, the maxims of Quantity – make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange- and Relevance; therefore, we may assume that the cooperative principle of this conversation is non-existing.However, by considering B’s contribution in a deeper sense, we may come to perceive the existence of the cooperative principle –if John’s owns a blue Volkswagen car, then he may be at Bob’s house; hence B’s contribution was efficient and cooperative.

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Maxims flouting

Implicatures can be attained and inferred either by a full observation of the maxims or by an infringement of one these maxims. If the meaning of an utterance is observed to have arisen out of respect of the maxims, then the implicature is a standard implicature. By contrast, if one of the maxims was breached deliberately and ostentatiously, Grice calls it maxims flouting or exploitation. Any of the above-mentioned maxims can be flouted. Let’s consider the following example in which the maxim of quality – make your contribution one that’s true  is blatantly flouted:

  • A: Paris’s in Turkey isn’t h, teacher?
  • B: And London’s in Armenia 1 suppose

B’s utterance is clearly violating the maxim of truthfulness i.e. quality, yet B’s intention was to suggest that A’s wrong.  Refenrences:Grice (1981), Presupposition and Conversational Implicature.Levinson (1983), Pragmatics, Cambridge University Press.

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