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In pragmatics, a subdiscipline of linguistics, an implicature is something the speaker suggests or implies with an utterance, even though it is not literally expressed. The philosopher H. P. Grice coined the term in 1975. He distinguished conversational implicatures, which arise because speakers are expected to respect general rules of conversation, and conventional ones, which are tied to certain words.[1] Take for example the following exchange:

A (to passer by): I am out of gas.
B: There is a gas station round the corner.

Here, B does not say, but conversationally implicates, that the gas station is open, because otherwise his utterance would not be relevant in the context.[2][3] Conversational implicatures are classically seen as contrasting with entailments: They are not necessary consequences of what is said, but are defeasible (cancellable).[4][5] So, B could continue without contradiction:

B: But unfortunately it's closed today.

An example of a conventional implicature is "Donovan is poor but happy", where the word "but" implicates a sense of contrast between being poor and being happy.[6]

Later linguists introduced refined and different definitions of the term, leading to somewhat different ideas about which parts of the information conveyed by an utterance are actually implicatures and which aren't.[7][8]


Conversational implicatureEdit

Grice was primarily concerned with conversational implicatures. Like all implicatures, these are part of what is communicated. In other words, conclusions the addressee draws from an utterance, although they were not actively conveyed by the communicator, are never implicatures. According to Grice, conversational implicatures arise because communicating people are expected by their addressees to obey Grice's maxims of conversation and the overarching cooperative principle, which basically states that people are expected to communicate in a cooperative, helpful way.[9][10]

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.
The maxims of conversation
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 [or Relation]
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 (1975:26f), Levinson (1983:100–102)

Standard implicaturesEdit

The "standard" situation is where the addressee can draw conclusions from the assumption that the communicator obeys the maxims, as in the following examples. The symbol "+>" means "implicates".[11]

It is raining. +> I believe, and have adequate evidence, that it is raining.

Moore's paradox, the observation that the sentence "It is raining, but I don't believe that it is raining" sounds contradictory although it isn't from a strictly logical point of view, has been explained as a contradiction to this type of implicature. However, as implicatures can be cancelled (see below), this explanation is dubious.[11]

Quantity (i)

A well-known class of quantity implicatures are the scalar implicatures. Prototypical examples include words specifying quantities such as "some", "few", or "many":[12][13]

John ate some of the cookies. +> John didn't eat all of the cookies.

Here, the use of "some" semantically entails that more than one cookie was eaten. It does not entail, but implicates, that not every cookie was eaten, or at least that the speaker does not know whether any cookies are left. The reason for this implicature is that saying "some" when one could say "all" would be less than informative enough in most circumstances. The general idea is that the communicator is expected to make the strongest possible claim, implicating the negation of any stronger claim.[12]

Some further scalar implicatures:[14]

I slept on a boat yesterday. +> The boat was not mine.

This is a common construction where the indefinite article indicates that the referent is not closely associated with the speaker, because the stronger claim "I slept on my boat yesterday" is not made.[15]

The flag is green. +> The flag is completely green.

If this is the strongest possible claim, it follows that the flag has no other features, because "The flag is green and some other color" would be stronger. In other words, if it did contain other features, this utterance would not be informative enough.[11]

She won't necessarily get the job. +> She will possibly get the job.
Quantity (ii)

The second quantity maxim seems to work in the opposite direction as the first; the communicator makes a weaker claim, from which a stronger one is implicated. Implicatures arising from this maxim enrich the information contained in the utterance:[16]

He drank a bottle of vodka and fell into a stupor. +> He drank a bottle of vodka and consequently fell into a stupor.
I lost a book yesterday. +> The book was mine.

There is extensive literature, but no consensus on the question which of the two quantity maxims is in operation in which circumstances; i.e. why "I lost a book yesterday" implicates that the book was the speaker's, while "I slept on a boat yesterday" usually implicates that the boat wasn't the speaker's.[8]

That cake looks delicious. +> I would like a piece of that cake.

This statement taken by itself would be irrelevant in most situations, so the addressee concludes that the speaker had something more in mind.

The introductory example also belongs here:[2]

A: I am out of gas.
B: There is a gas station round the corner. +> The gas station is open.
Manner (iv)[11]
The cowboy jumped on his horse and rode into the sunset. +> The cowboy performed these two actions in this order.

Clashes of maximsEdit

Sometimes it is impossible to obey all maxims at once. Suppose that A and B are planning a holiday in France and A suggests they visit their old acquaintance Gérard:

A: Where does Gérard live?
B: Somewhere in the South of France. +> B does not know where exactly Gérard lives.

B's answer violates the maxim of quantity (i) as it does not contain sufficient information to plan their route. But as B does not know the exact location, she cannot obey this maxim and also the maxim of quality; hence the implicature.[17]


The maxims can also be blatantly disobeyed or flouted, giving rise to another kind of conversational implicature. This is possible because addressees will go to great lengths in saving their assumption that the communicator did in fact – perhaps on a deeper level – obey the maxims and the cooperative principle. Many figures of speech can be explained by this mechanism.[18][19]

Quality (i)

Saying something that is obviously false can produce irony, meiosis, hyperbole and metaphor:[18]

When she heard about the rumour, she exploded.

As it is improbable that she really exploded, and it is highly unlikely that the speaker wanted to lie or was simply mistaken, the addressee has to assume the utterance was meant to be metaphorical.

Quantity (i)

This type includes tautologies, which have no logical content and hence no entailments, but can still be used to convey information:[18]

War is war.
A: Mrs Jenkins is an old windbag, don't you think?
B: Lovely weather for March, isn't it? +> Watch out, she is standing right behind you! (or the like)
Manner (iii)[18]
Miss Singer produced a series of sounds corresponding closely to the score of an aria from Rigoletto. +> What Miss Singer produced cannot really be described as an aria from Rigoletto.

Particularized versus generalized implicaturesEdit

Implicatures that arise only in specific contexts are called particularized, while those that are not context dependent are generalized.[20] Many of the examples above rely on some context, making them particularized implicatures: thus, "War is war" can refer to different properties of war, or things expected to happen during war, depending on the situation in which it is uttered.

The scalar implicatures are prototypical examples of generalized implicatures.[12] Stephen Levinson in particular developed a theory of generalized conversational implicature based on Grice's ideas.[21]


Grice attributed a number of properties to conversational implicatures:[22]

They are defeasible (cancellable), meaning that the implicature may be cancelled by further information or context.[23] Take the examples from above:

That cake looks delicious. +> I would like a piece of that cake.
That cake looks delicious, but it looks too rich for me. (implicature defeated)
A: Did John eat some of the cookies?
B: He certainly did eat some of the cookies. In fact he ate them all.

They are usually non-detachable in the sense that they cannot be "detached" by rephrasing the utterance, as they are consequences of the meaning and not the wording. The obvious exception are implicatures following from the maxim of manner, which explicitly rely on the phrasing.[24] Thus, the following utterances have the same implicature as above:

That fruit cake there looks appetizing.
The dessert you brought is really mouthwatering.

Conversational implicatures are calculable, meaning that they are supposed to be formally derivable from the utterance in combination with the maxims and contextual information.[25]

They are non-conventional, that is, they are not part of the "conventional" (lexical and logical) meaning of a sentence.[25]

Lastly, they can be context dependent, as mentioned above.[25]

Opting out of the cooperative principleEdit

The cooperative principle and the maxims of conversation are not mandatory. A communicator can choose not to be cooperative; she can opt out of the cooperative principle by giving appropriate clues such as saying "My lips are sealed", or for example during a cross-examination at court. In such situations, no conversational implicatures arise.[26][27]


Do implicatures contrast with entailments?

While implicatures are classically described as contrasting with entailments, there has since been dissent.

A: Did you drive somewhere yesterday?
B: I drove to London.

Here, B implicates via the maxim of relation that he drove somewhere (as this is the fitting answer to A's question), but this information is also entailed by his answer.[4][28]

Are quantity implicatures actually implicatures?

At least some scalar and other quantity "implicatures" seem not to be implicatures at all but semantic enrichments of the utterance, what is variously described as a kind of explicature or as an impliciture in the literature. For example, Kent Bach argues that a sentence like "John ate some of the cookies" does not implicate "John didn't eat all of the cookies" because the latter isn't a claim separate from the first; rather, the speaker just has a single meaning in mind, namely "John ate some but not all of the cookies".[29] Likewise, Robyn Carston considers conclusions of the type "He drank a bottle of vodka and [consequently] fell into a stupor" enrichments.[30]

Can implicatures only arise when the communicator is cooperative?

Take the above example about Gérard's place of residence. If B knows where Gérard lives, and A knows this, we also get an implicature, although a different one:

A: Where does Gérard live?
B: Somewhere in the South of France. +> B does not want to say where exactly Gérard lives.

This contradicts Grice's notion that implicatures can only arise when the communicator observes the cooperative principle.[31]

Implicature in relevance theoryEdit

In the framework known as relevance theory, implicature is defined as a counterpart to explicature. The explicatures of an utterance are the communicated assumptions that are developed from its logical form (intuitively, the literal meaning) by supplying additional information from context: by disambiguating ambiguous expressions, assigning referents to pronouns and other variables, and so on. All logically independent communicated assumptions that cannot be obtained in this way are implicatures.[32][33] For example, if Peter says

Susan told me that her kiwis were too sour.

the hearer might arrive at the explicature

Susan told Peter that the kiwifruit she, Susan, grew were too sour for the judges at the fruit grower's contest.

Now assume that Peter and the hearer both know that

Susan is ambitious. If she loses at something, she's pretty downcast.

and that Peter intended the hearer to activate this knowledge. Then this is an implicated premise. Further, if Peter intended the hearer to conclude from his utterance and the implicated premise that

+> Susan needs to be cheered up.
+> Peter wants me to ring Susan and cheer her up.

then these are implicated conclusions. Implicated premises and conclusions are the two types of implicatures in the relevance theoretical sense.[34]

There is no sharp cutoff between implicatures, which are part of the intentional meaning of an utterance, and unintended implications the addressee may draw. For example, there may be no consensus whether

 ?+> Peter wants me to buy Susan some chocolate to cheer her up.

is an implicature of the above utterance. We say this assumption is only weakly implicated.[35]

Communicative principle of relevance

Every utterance conveys the information that it is
(a) relevant enough for it to be worth the addressee's effort to process it.
(b) the most relevant one compatible with the communicator's abilities and preferences.

— adapted from Sperber & Wilson (1995:270)

Both explicatures and implicatures follow from the communicative principle of relevance, which unlike Grice's cooperative principle is not optional, but is always in force whenever someone communicates – it is descriptive of, not prescriptive for, communicative acts. Consequently, implicatures can arise even if, or precisely because, the communicator is uncooperative. Relevance theory can therefore effortlessly account for the above example about Gérard: If B knows where Gérard lives, and "Somewhere in the South of France" is the most relevant answer compatible with B's preferences, it follows that B is unwilling to disclose his knowledge.[31]


All pragmatically derived information, including parts of explicatures that are supplied from context, is calculable and defeasible. Therefore, different criteria are needed in relevance theory to identify implicatures. Carston has argued that implicatures have to be logically independent from the logical form of a sentence; that is, they are not entailed by any of the explicatures, nor do they entail them. If this were not the case, some implicatures would be redundant. This would cause unnecessary effort on part of the addressee, which runs against the principle of relevance.[33]

An example of a pragmatically derived conclusion that has traditionally been seen as an implicature, but must be an explicature according to Carston's reasoning, has already been mentioned above: "He drank a bottle of vodka and fell into a stupor" → "He drank a bottle of vodka and consequently fell into a stupor".[33]

Metaphor and hyperboleEdit

Take the metaphor

The witch exploded.

The speaker obviously does not believe in the literal truth of the utterance, and certainly did not want to communicate it. However, if it were literally true, it would implicate something like

+> The witch produced a sudden outburst of unpleasant noise.

which would establish relevance. This is enough to actually be an implicature of the utterance. Hyperbole is explained along the same lines.[36]

Conventional implicatureEdit

Conventional implicatures, briefly introduced but never elaborated on by Grice, are independent of the cooperative principle and the four maxims. They are instead tied to the conventional meaning of certain words and grammatical structures. In addition, they are not defeasible, but have the force of entailments.[37][38] An example:

Donovan is poor but happy.

This sentence states that Donovan is poor, and that he is happy. In addition, the word "but" implicates a sense of contrast. Taken together, the sentence means approximately "Surprisingly, Donovan is happy in spite of being poor".

"Yewberry", more accurately the aril of the European yew

Examples of grammatical structures producing conventional implicatures are non-restrictive supplements such as this adjective phrase:[39]

Yewberry jelly, toxic in the extreme, will give you an awful stomachache.

The implicature here is that yewberry jelly is toxic in the extreme. Because of the mentioned differences to conversational implicatures, it has been argued that "conventional implicatures" aren't implicatures at all but rather secondary propositions or entailments of an utterance. Under this view, the sentence about Donovan would have the primary proposition "Donovan is poor and happy" and the additional proposition "There is a contrast between poverty and happiness". The sentence about yewberry jelly contains the two propositions "Yewberry jelly will give you an awful stomachache" and "Yewberry jelly is toxic in the extreme".[38][40]

See alsoEdit



  • Bach, Kent (1999). "The Myth of Conventional Implicature". Linguistics and Philosophy. 22 (4): 327–366.
  • Bach, Kent (2005), The Top 10 Misconceptions about Implicature (PDF) In: Birner & Ward (2006).
  • Birner, Betty (2013). Introduction to Pragmatics. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Birner, Betty; Ward, Gregory (2006). A Festschrift for Larry Horn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Blackburn, Simon (1996). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press. Implicature.
  • Blome‐Tillmann, Michael (2013). "Conversational Implicatures (and How to Spot Them)" (PDF). Philosophy Compass. 8 (2): 170–185. doi:10.1111/phc3.12003.
  • Carston, Robyn (1988). "Implicature, Explicature, and Truth-Theoretic Semantics". In Kempson, Ruth. Mental Representations: The Interface between Language and Reality. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-34251-1.
  • Carston, Robyn (1998). Informativeness, Relevance and Scalar Implicature (PDF). Relevance Theory: Applications and Implications. John Benjamins. ISBN 978-1556193309.
  • Carston, Robyn (2002). Thoughts and Utterances: The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0631214885.
  • Cole, Peter, The synchronic and diachronic status of conversational implicature. In Cole & Morgan (1975:257–288).
  • Cole, Peter; Morgan, Jerry L., eds. (1975). Syntax and Semantics, 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-785424-3.
  • Davis, S., ed. (1991). Pragmatics: A Reader. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-505898-7.
  • Davison, A., Indirect speech acts and what to do with them. In Cole & Morgan (1975:143–184).
  • Green, G. M., How to get people to do things with words. In Cole & Morgan (1975:107–141).
  • Grice, H. P., ed. (1989). Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-85270-9.
  • Grice, H. P. (1975), Logic and conversation (PDF). Cole & Morgan (1975). Reprinted in Grice (1989:22–40). Page numbers refer to the reprint.
  • Holtgraves, Thomas; Kraus, Brian (2018). "Processing scalar implicatures in conversational contexts: An ERP study". Journal of Neurolinguistics. 46: 93–108. doi:10.1016/j.jneuroling.2017.12.008.
  • Levinson, Stephen (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521294140.
  • Levinson, Stephen (2000). Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262621304.
  • Potts, Christopher (2005). "Conventional implicatures, a distinguished class of meanings" (PDF). The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Interfaces. Oxford University Press.
  • Searle, John, Indirect speech acts. In Cole & Morgan (1975). Reprinted in Davis (1991:265–277).
  • Sperber, Dan; Wilson, Deirdre (1995). Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0631198789.
  • Wilson, Deirdre; Sperber, Dan (1981). Werth, Paul, ed. On Grice's Theory of Conversation. Conversation and Discourse. Croom Helm. pp. 155–178. ISBN 9780709927174.

Further readingEdit