Friday, April 13, 2012

Studies in the Way of Words

There is often a gap between words and their meaning. For instance, when we say “he is at an investment bank”, there could be many meanings: the saying may mean that he works for an investment bank, he just visited an investment bank, he was just there to wait for someone, etc. To make a conversation work, we need a condition by which we can specify the specific meaning of the saying.

Principle and Maxims for complete communication

Paul Grice formalized the theory about relationship between saying and meaning in his book “Studies in the Way of Words”. He argued that if saying (p) is to be strictly tied to its meaning (q), i.e. q=f(p), the saying needs to satisfy the following rules:

  • Cooperative Principle: Make your conversational contribution such that it is required by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged
  • Maxim 1 (Quantity): (1) make your contribution as informative as is required; (2) Do not make your contribution more informative than is required
  • Maxim 2 (Quantity): (1) do not say what you believe to be false; (2) do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence
  • Maxim 3 (Relation): be relevant
  • Maxim 4 (Manner): (1) avoid obscurity of expression; (2) avoid ambiguity; (3) be brief; (4) be orderly

Grice argued that when one satisfies the rules above, one will be able to convey his or her idea using words without any confusions.

Role of implicature

However, what we usually observe is that we are following the Cooperative Principle but maxims. In other words, although we try to cooperate for getting mutual understanding, we do not fully follow the specific rules (maxims). Even in that case, we have few issues in our communication. Why?

Thus Grice came up with the theory of implicature. Implicature is his own terminology, as he believed that the word implication is close but not perfect to articulate his idea. Implicature works such that people in communication ties the saying to the appropriate meaning, through using their knowledge and information about the situation.

For example let’s think about the following conversation:

A: I lost my key.

B: I guess I saw it on the table over there.

In this conversation, what A truly means is not the fact that he/she lost his key; what he/wants to ask is something like “do you know where my key is?”. Also, what B truly means is also like “I think the key is on the table over there.”. Both saying is violating maxims in conversation, but their communication works without any serious issues. Grice explains what it is possible as follows:

“A man who, by (in, when) saying (or making as if to say) that p has implicated that q, may be said to have conversationally implicated that q, provided that (1) he is to be presumed to be observing the conversational maxims, or at least the Cooperative Principle; (2) the supposition that he is aware that, or thinks that, q is required in order to make his saying or making as if to say p (or doing so in those terms) consistent with this presumption; and (3) the speaker thinks (and would expect the hearer to think that the speaker thinks) that it is within the competence of the hearer to work out, or grasp intuitively, that the supposition mentioned in(2) is required. “ (“Studies in the Way of Words", p31)

In some sense, the thought process of implicature is akin to a weak form of proof by contradiction, or a sort of abduction (see my previous post

According to Grice, there are two sorts of implicature. One is the conversational implicature, the implicature that is coming from conversation and thus based on the ability of people in conversation. In other words, some conversational implicatures are applicable to specific people only.

Another is the conventional implicature, which requires more general and conventional ideas held among people and requires no conversation. For instance, the following would be conventional implicature:

“She is poor but happy”.

The sentence implicates that, generally speaking, to be poor is incompatible with happiness.

The difference between conventional implicature and conversational implicature is fuzzy. Most of conventional implicatures were originally conversational implicatures. The birth or transition of common sense determines the difference.


The book was hard to read but quite interesting. The theory of implicature suggests that we are using very efficient conversational skill in our daily life. For example, the scope that conversational implicature covers in family conversation is especially huge, because family members have shared much time and have had common knowledge. We can shorten our family conversation because of our ability to use conversational implicature.

The idea may play an important role in designing artificial intelligence. Programming machine intelligence based on implicature thinking is far difficult than doing one based on the Cooperative Principles and the associated maxims. However, as our conversational style is firmly connected to implicature, it would be vital to design the program in that way.


Paul Grice, “Studies in the Way of Words”, Harvard University Press; Reprint edition, 1991/4/1

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