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Theory Of Conversational Implicature To Recognize Meaning English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5444 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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To understand an utterance is to go beyond the literal meaning interpretation. It is also to go beyond proposition analysis. This implies the existence of unity of what is said and what is implicated. The theory of conversational implicature by Grice is a theory that provides an account of the possibility to give a meaning that extend beyond the literal expressions that are uttered by the conventional sense. Through this theory, it will be available to catch the attention of the speaker and catch the figure of speech within the literary work. It will be also possible to improve the communicative skill.

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Grice has distinguished between the sentence meaning and the speaker’s meaning. He looked into the differences between the literal meaning that is contextually dependent and the conversational implicature that is contextually determined. For instance, the statement of this expression “He is a fine friend”, may convey that fact that the speaker is communicating ironically as the speaker intends that “He is not a good friend”. To find out such details, it is something dependent on the particular context in which this statement is uttered.

Therefore, in order to understand a message is to understand the meanings of the words that are uttered in the message and the grammatical relations between such meanings. This notion usually needs a particular degree of implicitness in the communication. This is what Grice has offered through the introduction of his principle that is called the Co-operative Principle (CP). Through this principle, it is to be aware of the entire communicative intentions as well as the conversational implicature. This is the mechanism to recognize meaning.

The conversational implicature theory and its implications will be explored in the following line with reference to its capability in distinguishing meaning.

Grice’s Theory of Conversational Implicature

Grice (1975;42) has made a distinction between the meaning of the words, what the speaker literally reports when coming up with them, and what the speaker intends to mean by conveying such words. This is the notion that usually goes beyond what is said. For instance, when someone is asked to lunch and he replies that he has a one o’clock class that he is not prepared for; by this, he has conveyed that he will not be coming to lunch, although hasn’t literally said so. He wants the second party to understand that by giving a reason for not accepting to have lunch (the need to prepare the class) he intends to inform that he is not coming to lunch due to that reason. The study of such conversational implicatures is the main focus of Grice’s theory.

To start with, the Grice’s theory of conversation provides a clear distinction between what someone says and what he implicates by conveying this utterance. The utterance that someone conveys is elaborated by the sentence conventional meaning as well as the processes of disambiguation of context and fixing the reference. The implication is connected with the presence of some rational principles and maxims regulating the conversation and this is what known as the conventional implicatures that will be explored in the later lines. The literal content of the utterance has been broadly identified as the direct interpretation of the utterance without reference to any other contextual implications. The implicature or what the speakers intends to convey or what is implied in the speaker’s utterance stands on different bases from what the speaker intentionally communicates.

The Co-Operative Principle (CP)

Grice suggests that speakers and hearers share a co-operative principle within the conversation. He proposed four maxims or four guidelines that control the efficient co-operative use of language. His co-operative principle states that it is to make a contribution as per the required levels in terms of the stage at which it occurs, the purpose of the talk, and the direction of talk exchange in which the speaker or hearer is engaged (Grice, 1975; 43).

The four maxims

As Grice conveyed, there are four maxims that guide the implementation of the co-operative principle in the plans of speakers and comprehension of listeners. These four maxims are as follows:


This maxim implies that the speaker should avoid the inclusion of unnecessary information in what he contributes. Should the speaker go back and forth without providing anything new or informative; this is to make the listener lose interest in the discourse.

The contribution is to be as informative as is required (for the present goals of the exchange).

The contribution is not to be more informative than required.


This maxim implies that the speakers should provide all the information that the hearer is in need to understand. Should the speaker come over a significant piece of information, it will be difficult for the addressee to get what the speaker is attempting to convey.


The principle of relevance is so important in Linguistics. By, relevance, Grice means that, within the conversation, the speaker should involve the information that is relevant to the conversation subject. The principle of relevance is a matter of degree as there is a divergence between people as what is relevant and what is not relevant. It is not something absolute.

As per the circumstances of separate situations, the particular application of the principle varies to great extents.


Politeness is a more moral principle than its grammatical significance in Linguistics. This maxim involves some sub-points;

Avoiding obscure expressions.

Avoiding ambiguous elements.

Avoiding prolixity.

To have the characteristic of delivering ordered utterances.

To convey what is said in the manner that is most appropriate for any response that would be viewed as appropriate (Grice, 1975; 44).

The request for politeness implies that the speaker should treat the hearer in the manner that he would like to be treated

According to Grice, the principles that control the conversation are derived from the controls that regulate the cooperative actions of humans. Extensive discussions have been introduced regarding the co-operative principle and the maxims. The questions that can be raised here are that whether there is a need for more or not. It is to be argued that whether these principles are normative or descriptive. Also, it is to be argued whether these principles are assumed to be observed by the speakers or hearers in rational communications or that they are tools for rational construction. A later argument that can be raised is that whether the co-operative principle needs from the part of speakers or hearers cooperation towards a more common goal and not to be restricted to understanding of what is said. It is clear that Grice gives to these principles a vital role in both of the definition and the interpretation of conversational implicatures.

According to Grice, coherence and purposefulness are two major characteristics of verbal exchanges. Verbal exchanges are not a continuum of disconnected remarks (Grice, 1975; 45). The participants who are engaged in the talk-exchange cooperate in terms of the goal and purpose of the exchange and their mutual grasp of the maxims or rules of conversation that bring out what is appropriate or inappropriate to the talk-exchange. Speakers may intentionally break the rules or maxims. For example, speakers may say things, in a talk-exchange, which they don’t believe (violating the maxim of quality) or may render a weak judgment of what the hearer knows (violating the maxim of quantity).

The crucial factor in distinguishing between conversational implicatures and conventional implicatures, according to Grice, is that conversational implicatures are calculable. Conventional implicatures are given by the meaning of particular particles such as ‘but’ or ‘therefore.’ The difference between (1) and (2) can be seen:

He is an American, therefore he is open-minded.

He is an American, and he is open-minded.

His being open-minded comes from his being American.

In (1) and (2), the speaker conveys the same meaning in accordance with Grice. But, there is a difference that with (1), the speaker implicates (3). This is what is called conventional implicature. This has to do with the conventional meaning and has nothing to do with the maxims of cooperation that extend beyond what is being said.

Conventional implicature is the greatest part that has undergone argumentation in the theory of conversation. This can be attributed for many reasons. One reason is that its application to particular examples goes against common intuitions. Also, the notion of conventional implicatures sheds light on the distinction between what is informed, directed by the semantic conventions of the language, and what is implicated, usually conceived as a subject of inference to the speaker’s intentions through his sayings. The conventional meaning of a sentence has largely to do with what is said and this is essentially different from implicatures. Eventually, it positions the study of conventional meaning for certain utterances inside the boundaries of pragmatics that is interested in the study of implicatures, rather than semantics that is realized as the dwelling of conventional meaning.

In addition to the notion of conversational implicatures, Grice distinguished between what are called particularized and generalized implicatures. The particularized are implicatures that are produced by saying something with reference to some specific features of the context. The generalized implicature takes place where the use of specific forms of words in an utterance will carry a sort of implicature (Bach, 1994; 162). The example that was provided by Grice; “Y is meeting a woman this morning”. In the absence of special conditions, it will be implicated that this woman is a woman other than Y’s wife, mother, sister, or friend. In appropriate circumstances, this implicatures can be ignored due to the availability of some contextual information.

On the other hand, particularized conversational implicatures export more than one application. Such applications include tautologies, metaphor, irony, and any non-conventional uses that can be accounted for through them. The theory of implicature is counted to be significant. It is a very important theory in pragmatics.

Sentence meaning and speaker’s meaning

Grice believes that speaker’s meaning is a fundamental concept in communication, and that the meaning of the sentence can be explained by means of it. This notion contrasts with what can be called the truth-conditional theory whose proponents believe that the meaning of a sentence can be given through truth conditions and this should have the priority in explaining the meaning conveyed by the speaker.

Grice (1975) was much concerned with the types of meaning that can be existed in language. Two types of meaning have been identified; the natural meaning and the nonnatural meaning.

This example is adopted from Grice (1975; 337)

The three rings of the bell mean that the bus is occupied

The three rings of the bell mean that the bus is occupied, and indeed, the bus is occupied.

The three rings of the bell mean that the bus is occupied, but indeed, the conductor was wrong and the bus is not occupied.

In the above three examples, there is a nonnatural relationship between the three arguments of rings, bell, and bus. The relationship between the signal and intended meaning is what conveys the meaning. No natural reason can be found for such assumption. Why in particular the three rings, not one or two, denote that the bus is full. This notion is termed by Grice as (meaning NN). Grice contends that the non-natural meaning occupies a great part in the language.

Communicative intentions

According to Grice, word-meaning and sentence-meaning are basically rested upon what is called speaker’s intentions. This notion is called by Grice as the communicative intentions. Grice has worked much upon the idea of the ontology of semantic notions. In his perception, the characteristics of communicative intentions and the mental forces beyond the communicative actions, and what the listener has to understand in order for the communicative act to success are the pillars of the semantic ontology.

As realized, the communicative intentions have the following characteristics;

Communicative intentions are directed towards some other agent; i.e. to the addressee.

Communicative intentions are overt. They are targeted to be identified by the addressee.

Satisfaction of communicative intentions lies mainly in being identified by the addressee.

The important conclusion that can be derived from the above facts is that the communicative intentions have much to do with being recognized by the addressee.

Meaning recognition

Much of Grice’s work (1975) consisted mainly in shedding light on the difference between what is conveyed literally in a given sentence and what is solely suggested in an utterance of the same sequence of words. To distinguish between the two, Grice (1975; 55) used the terms implicate and implicature with referring to content of the utterance that is linguistically coded as WHAT IS SAID.

What is said within a sentence and what is implicated in an utterance in the same string of words in that sentence is what is known as the TOTAL SIGNIFICANCE OF AN UTTERANCE (Grice, 1989; 41).

Implicature refers to a collection of ways that is used to convey the literally unsaid information. To graphically represent the relationships between these notions, the following diagram can be represented:

Total significance of an utterance

What is said what is implicated

Conventional nonconventional

Conversational nonconversational

Generalized particularized

The concern will be with the conventional implicature and the two kinds of conversational implicature.

When it comes to conventional implicature, the conventional meaning of the given words will specify the implication or what is implicated in addition to helping in identifying what is said (Grice, 1975; 55). An example form Grice (1975;56) of conventional implicature can be considered. The following example is meant conventionally to have an implication rather than to literally say that the man’s being open-minded comes from his being an American:

He is and American; he is, therefore, open-minded

The existence of the lexical item “therefore” has to give prominence to the conventional implicature in the above example.

Conventional implicature are generated by certain hints of discourse rather than the literal meaning or the conventional meaning of a give word (Grice, 1989; 30). These features can be explored in the following points:

The cooperative principle governs the linguistic exchanges. The content of the cooperative principle is elaborated in terms of the four maxims of conversation and their submaxims.

In a given exchange, should one participant deviates from the cooperative principle, his parteners will assume that the principle is adopted at some deeper level.

A fifth point that for Grice is the understanding of the intercultural process as it raises the awareness of the participants regarding what they have in common in terms of the four factors. According to Sperber and Wilson (1989; 45), there is no a true warranty in the assumption of mutual knowledge. Sperber and Wilson convey that the notion of mutual knowledge has no close counterpart in the real world. Instead, they suggest that, the communication process is the essential beyond the joint information. They also suggest that the communication is achieved if there is shared information between the participants.

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Meaning as Use

The major contribution of Grice concentrated on making distinction between the semantic and pragmatic implications. Meaning as use points to the speaker’s meaning and what the speaker intends as well as the communicative influence of the utterance. This perspective of meaning is sound since the function of language is to serve a purpose. It other words, language is purposeful, i.e. when speaking an utterance; it is intended to achieve specific ends. Therefore, language as use includes making choices about the suitable linguistic forms that are appropriate to the communicative situation and the cultural context.

The view of meaning is based the tenet that that language is an instrument of social interaction and communication. As per this tenet, there is an emphasis on the principles that determine the way in which language operates in the daily life. Hereby, meaning is regarded as a pragmatic phenomenon that has multiple uses governed by tacit principles. The application of these principles relies on the communicative setting, social bonds, and the cultural context.

Meaning as use is not directly concerned with the word or sentence in itself. It, rather, depends on the utterance that is defined in respect of a speech act. The speech act has three criteria to define it; it is defined as a locutionary act, an illocutionary force, and it is finally defined as perlocutionary event. Such criteria can be accounted for in respect of the utterance.

For example;

Semantics has many benefits

In a particular context, this is a locutionary act. There is an articulation of phonemes, words, and syllables so that a certain linguistic meaning can be encoded. In terms of the linguistic communication rules, there is a message and purpose for the utterance. If this utterance is said by the professor to the student, it is then an act of persuasion.

Also, this utterance is a perlocutionary event as it entails the supposition of some reaction or consequence. The consequence may take place as more positive attitude to linguistics. It is normally perceived that giving an advice has the expectation that this advice will be responded positively and not rudely.

To cut this long story short, it can be said that the utterance generates a link between the speaker, the hearer, and the message. Not only does the speaker encodes the meaning and the message from the linguistic perspective, but also it has an impact on the action through the use of language. So, the definition of the speech act comprises to utterance characteristics; encoding the meaning by the speaker in the manner of a mental representation and the decoding of the communicative function by the listener.

Hereby, natural language is described as both a social and psychological phenomenon. On the psychological basis, it is communicative language that makes people able to communicate in an effective manner by the means of verbal means (Chomsky, 1975). The communicative competence comprises both of the grammatical skills and the sociolinguistic skills. The sociolinguistic skills involve the rules of social bonds and interaction in the light of the cultural conventions and values. On the other hand, the communicative competence involves a mix of the pragmatic and grammatical competence.

Functional Grammar

Functional grammar (FG) implies that notion that elements of language are studied with reference to their function in the language. Functional grammar thus investigates language function from the perspective of communicative context. It concentrates on the grammatical data generating from the social communication.

According to the functional grammar, language is an elaborate system of meanings that are realized as semantic constituents together with the other grammatical categories. This is considered a synesic approach to grammar study rather than a syntactic one. Linguistic forms are not an end in themselves, but they are a means to an end.

Thus, it vane be realized that functional grammar model is referred to a semantic system mixed with the linguistic forms through which meanings are realized.

For functional grammar, every language is centered on two fundamental meaning components; the ideational and interpersonal metafunctions. By means of the ideational metafunction, it is to acquire knowledge and learning about the surrounding world and to communicate one’s experiences. By means of the interpersonal metafunction, language is used to establish and keep relationships with others.

Both of the interpersonal and ideational metafunctions are representation of the universal use of language. It is to control and understand the surrounding environment. Together with these two components, it the third element which is called meaning or the textual metafunction. Through the textual metafunction, the language user has the tools for arranging information in coherent passages.

Intercultural interaction

Sperber and Wilson (1995) report that individuals who speak the same language and who belong to the same linguistic community do not have the same assumptions.

It can be argued that the principle of common knowledge cannot be completely supported and idea of shared knowledge is too ambiguous.

Ostension is a fundamental point in the theory of Sperber and Wilson. Ostension means when a speaker makes something that draws the attention of the other participants within the discourse.

Also, there is what is known as the theory of relevance that is an act of Ostension bears a guarantee of relevance and this principle of relevance makes the intention beyond the Ostension more manifest. This guarantee is not intended to mean that the assumption implies the notion of mutual manifestation or that the communicative intent will not be a failure. The main function of the guarantee is that something relevant is at hand.

The point of manifests occupies a significant position within the theory of Sperber and Wilson. Manifest is what is recognizable or inferable but not necessarily recognized or perceived. To apply manifests, it is to extend from facts to all assumptions. Assumptions can be defined as what individuals think of as a representation of the real world. This stands on a contradictory basis with the fictions and desires. It is possible to make assumptions, but assumptions cannot be made without activation within the conversation process. It can be assumed that Osama Bin Laden has never played tennis with the American President Bush, but this assumption cannot be made real without being activated.

According to Sperber and Wilson, it is available to suggest that mutual manifests are available and are not implausible like the notions of mutual knowledge and mutual assumptions.

Mutual cognitive environment is very close to the notion of mutual manifests that can be defined as any joint cognitive environment that is manifest that it is shared by people.

That two people have the same cognitive environment does not mean that they have similar assumptions, but they are placed to do so.

One of the needed outcomes of the intercultural communication is to increase the range of mutual knowledge of other’s assumptions. What the conversation involves in terms of the activation and mutual bases depends on the appreciations of the parties participating in the conversation and their skill as well as their continuous negotiation.

The relationship between conversational structure and thought

In general, it is obvious that what the conversationalist spreads, intents, or says in the articulation is out-of- the-way beyond the meanings of the sentence in the context of the articulation. This relates to semantic meaning of the context of pronunciation. However, it is debatable which cases suit this description.

The quantifier domain restriction is one of these debatable cases. Suppose, a person is standing in his house after a party, he says to his wife in a gloomy way, “Every bottle is empty”. What is not debatable is that his conveyance through this articulation is not meant that every bottle in the universe is empty, but that every bottle in his house is empty. The debatable question is how this phenomenon should be elaborated.

It could be mentioned that the sentence “Every bottle is empty” is sensitive to context and it indicates to a variant proposition relative to variant contexts of articulation. For instance, this might be due to the logical form of the sentence involves a variable whose value is the domain of quantification, and the importance of this variable differs according to contexts of articulation (John David Yule, 1985).

In comparable, the sentence, in terms of pragmatics, to the letter means (semantically expresses) the wrong suggestion that every bottle in the universe is empty and there is some other non-semantic elaboration of the fact that in this event I am able to transfer the limited suggestion that every bottle in the flat is empty. Remarkable intuitive support for the pragmatic method exists for addressing these cases; after all, it is right that my wife’s reply could be ” well, every bottle isn’t empty; our guests just drunk all of the soft beverages in our flat.” Surly, there is sense in which this reply achieves the things aimed at, although it is not useful; the pragmatic method has an excellent elaboration of this in terms of its claim that the original sentence is wrong in a literal sense.

One who follows the pragmatic method has to say how a proposition P can be transferred by an articulation of a sentence, which, in the context, its meaning differs from the proposition P. This elaboration is provided in terms of specific rules running conversation, according to a Grecian version of the pragmatic method. The idea of Grice was that a person can transfer, in some articulation, a proposition by implicating it in a conversational way. Conversationally, a person involves a proposition p by an articulation when (nearly) the coming three conditions are met. The first, the talker is hypothesized to be collaborative in the sense that he is pursuing the maxims of conversation. Secondly, the supposition the conversationalist thinks p is needed to make his articulation match with the maxims of conversation. Thirdly, the conversationalist believes that (2) is right. 1 in the existing case, the articulation of a sentence, which means every bottle (in the universe) is empty, is an articulation of a sentence that is clearly wrong, and so breaks the Maxim of Quality. Thus, if we are to presume that the conversationalist is being collaborative, we have to presume that the conversationalist was seeking to get across some discrete, not clearly wrong, suggestion. In addition, it appears possibly that this suggestion should be related to the clearly wrong one that was literally indicated by the sentence; given the context, “every bottle in the flat is empty” is the proposition, which is the clear-cut option.

Language Use & Thought

In the event of quantifier domain restriction, the elaboration of the phenomena can be created in events of applying language outside of conversations. Uses of language in thought are the most significant of such events. Assume that my before the end of the party, my wife went to sleep and that after leaving the last invitee, I say in a gloomy way to me “every bottle is empty.” Fascinatingly, this case looks parallel to the case mentioned above, in which I apply the same sentence in speaking. Just naturally, it would be represented the case as the one in which I said to myself that every bottle in the flat was empty since it would be to provide the identical description of my pronunciation, in speaking, of the similar sentence to my wife. However, it doesn’t appear open, in spite of this resemblance to the same elaboration: sitting lonely after the party I was not involved in a speaking, and therefore was not expose to the maxims of conversation. In addition, this appears raise a doubt about the original Gricean elaboration of the articulation to my wife. An elaboration, which relays on characteristics limited to one, is ad hoc to the degree that the phenomena look the similar.

According to the proponents of Grice, thinking is a type of conversation with oneself and thus it is ruled by the same maxims as conversations of several parties? Not very plausible. “My use of Every bottle is empty during speaking with my wife carried the limited suggestion that every bottle in the flat is partly empty, Since I believed that she was able to see that the presumption, in which I thought this and needed to convey it by my articulation, was needed to make my articulation match with the traditions ruling the conversation. However, the use of “Every bottle is empty” in thinking cannot provide the same elaboration. Despite we offer that I count as the audience of my own articulation here, we should ask: is it actually the case that I am capable of applying this sentence to say to myself that every bottle in the flat is empty, just due to thinking that I am able to solving that the presumption, in which I think of this, is required to conform my articulation to myself with the traditions of conversation, and because of thinking additionally that I am aware that I am able to solving that I think this? From time to time, I could carry these surprising thoughts, although it just appears that I need to apply “every bottle is empty” in thought to have in mind that every bottle in the flat is empty.

The debate, which proposed against the elaboration of Gricean of quantifier domain restriction, is simple: firstly, quantifier domain restriction occurs in uses of language in thought along with in communication. Secondly, the phenomena seem to be similar and thus they worth an integrated elaboration. Thirdly, the elaboration of Gricean doesn’t hold good for cases of quantifier domain restriction in uses of language in thought. Hence, fourthly, instances of quantifier domain restriction in communication is also failed to be explained by the Gricean’s elaboration.

Semantics that is based on Intentions

An intention based semantics – that is to say, a semantical theory according to which the meaning of an articulation is illustrated in terms of the psychological condition is meant to generate in an audience – was proposed by Grice. The applying of language to communicate is concentrated by such semantics (Spencer et al, 2002; 74-91).

Thus, Grice starts to make a try to separate a special type of meaning and he named this ‘communicative meaning’, or ‘non-natural meaning’ (meaningNN).

Natural vs. Non-natural meaning

Natural Meaning [“Non-cognitive meaning”]

“Those spots mean rubella.”

“Those didn’t mean anything to me, but they meant rubella to the doctor.”

“The recent budget indicates that we shall experience a tough year.”

Non-natural Meaning (MeaningNN) [“Communicative meaning”]

“Three rings on the bell indicate that the bus is complete.”

“That note, ‘Smith couldn’t dispense with his problem and struggle,’ indicated that Smith’s wife was more necessary to him.

Grice’s attempt is to generate an account of meaningNN.

Tests for MeaningNN


X means that p necessitate that p, in cases of natural meaning, while in cases of meaningNN, there is no such necessity.

For instance:

“Those spots denote rubeola, however he hasn’t got rubella” is self-conflicting.

“The three rings on the bell indicate that the bus is complete, however the bus isn’t


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