Conversational Implicature Definition and Examples

It's not what you say, but what you mean

Senior man talking on cell phone, looking out window

Hero Images/Getty Images

In pragmatics, conversational implicature is an indirect or implicit speech act: what is meant by a speaker's utterance that is not part of what is explicitly said. The term is also known simply as implicature; it is the antonym (opposite) of explicature, which is an explicitly communicated assumption.

"What a speaker intends to communicate is characteristically far richer than what she directly expresses; linguistic meaning radically underdetermines the message conveyed and understood," says L.R. Horn in "The Handbook for Pragmatics."

Example

  • Dr. Gregory House: "How many friends do you have?"
  • Lucas Douglas: "Seventeen."
  • Dr. Gregory House: "Seriously? Do you keep a list or something?"
  • Lucas Douglas: "No, I knew this conversation was really about you, so I gave you an answer so you could get back to your train of thought."

– Hugh Laurie and Michael Weston, "Not Cancer," an episode of the TV show "House, M.D." 2008

Inferences

"The probabilistic character of conversational implicature is easier to demonstrate than define. If a stranger at the other end of a phone line has a high-pitched voice, you may infer that the speaker is a woman. The inference may be incorrect. Conversational implicatures are a similar kind of inference: they are based on stereotyped expectations of what would, more often than not, be the case."

– Keith Allan, "Natural Language Semantics." Wiley-Blackwell, 2001

Origin

"The term [implicature] is taken from the philosopher H.P. Grice (1913-88), who developed the theory of the cooperative principle. On the basis that a speaker and listener are cooperating, and aiming to be relevant, a speaker can imply a meaning implicitly, confident that the listener will understand. Thus a possible conversational implicature of Are you watching this programme? might well be 'This programme bores me. Can we turn the television off?' "

– Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014

Conversational Implicature in Practice

"Generally speaking, a conversational implicature is an interpretive procedure that operates to figure out what is going on...Assume a husband and wife are getting ready to go out for the evening:

8. Husband: How much longer will you be?
9. Wife: Mix yourself a drink.

To interpret the utterance in Sentence 9, the husband must go through a series of inferences based on principles that he knows the other speaker is using...The conventional response to the husband's question would be a direct answer where the wife indicated some time frame in which she would be ready. This would be a conventional implicature with a literal answer to a literal question. But the husband assumes that she heard his question, that she believes that he was genuinely asking how long she would be, and that she is capable of indicating when she would be ready. The wife...chooses not to extend the topic by ignoring the relevancy maxim. The husband then searches for a plausible interpretation of her utterance and concludes that what she is doing is telling him that she is not going to offer a particular time, or doesn't know, but she will be long enough yet for him to have a drink. She may also be saying, 'Relax, I'll be ready in plenty of time.' "

– D. G. Ellis, "From Language to Communication." Routledge, 1999

The Lighter Side of Conversational Implicature

  • Jim Halpert: "I don't think I'll be here in 10 years."
  • Michael Scott: "That's what I said. That's what she said."
  • Jim Halpert: "That's what who said?"
  • Michael Scott: "I never know, I just say it. I say stuff like that, you know—to lighten the tension when things sort of get hard."
  • Jim Halpert: "That's what she said."

– John Krasinski and Steve Carell, "Survivor Man," an episode of the TV show, "The Office," 2007