explicature (speech acts)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

According to Sperber and Wilson, "The weaker the explicature, the harder it is to paraphrase what the speaker [is] saying" (The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy, 2005). (PW Illustration/Getty Images)


In pragmatics, explicature is a direct or explicit speech act: simply put, what is actually said (the content) as opposed to what's intended or implied. Contrast with conversational implicature.

The term explicature was coined by linguists Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson (in Relevance: Communication and Cognition, 1986) to characterize "an explicitly communicated assumption." The term is based on the model of H.P.

Grice's implicature "to characterise the speaker's explicit meaning in a way that allows for richer elaboration than Grice's notion of 'what is said'" (Wilson and Sperber, Meaning and Relevance, 2012).

According to Robyn Carston in Thoughts and Utterances (2002), a higher-level or higher-order explicature is "a particular kind of explicature . . . which involves embedding the propositional form of the utterance or one of its constituent propositional forms under a higher-level description such as a speech-act description, a propositional attitude description or some other comment on the embedded proposition."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "[A]n explicature consists of the explicit assumptions communicated by an utterance. . . . E.g. Depending on the context, the explicature of Everyone enjoys classical music may be 'Everyone in John's class enjoys classical music.'"
    (Yan Huang, The Oxford Dictionary of Pragmatics. Oxford University Press, 2012)

  • Utterances and Assumptions
    "On the cognitive pragmatic approach that we endorse, the explicit content of an utterance (its explicature) is taken to be that content which ordinary speaker-hearer intuition would identify as having been said or asserted by the speaker. . . .

    "In the following examples, the sentence uttered is given in (a) and a likely explicature of the utterance (dependent on context, of course) is given in (b):
    (11a) No-one goes there anymore.
    (11b) Hardly anyone of any worth/taste goes to location, any more

    (12a) There's milk in the fridge.
    (12b) There's milk of sufficient quantity/quality for adding to coffee in the fridge

    (13a) Max: Would you like to stay for supper.
    Amy: No thanks, I've already eaten.
    (13b) Amy has already eaten supper this evening
    " . . . These examples . . . suggest that there are explicatures which include constituents of content that do not appear to be the value of any element in the linguistic form of the utterance . . .. Such constituents have been the subject of extensive debate in recent years, concerning their source and the processes that are responsible for their recovery. One way of accounting for these elements is to assume that there is a lot more linguistic structure in the utterances than meets the eye (or ear)."
    (Robyn Carston and Alison Hall, "Implicature and Explicature." Cognitive Pragmatics, ed. by Hans-Jörg Schmid. Walter de Gruyter, 2012)

  • Degrees of Explicitness
    "Explicature (Sperber and Wilson 1995: 182)
    A proposition communicated by an utterance is an explicature if and only if it is a development of a logical form encoded by the utterance.
    ". . . Explicatures are recovered by a combination of decoding and inference. Different utterances may convey the same explicature in different ways, with different proportions of decoding and inference involved. Compare Lisa's answer in (6b) . . . with the three alternative versions in (6c)-(6e):
    (6a) Alan Jones: Do you want to join us for supper?
    (6b) Lisa: No, thanks. I've eaten.
    (6c) Lisa: No, thanks. I've already eaten supper.
    (6d) Lisa: No, thanks. I've already eaten tonight.
    (6e) Lisa: No, thanks. I've already eaten supper tonight.
    All four answers communicate not only the same overall meaning but also the same explicature and implicatures. . . .

    "Although all four answers in (6b)-(6e) convey the same explicature, there is a clear sense in which Lisa's meaning is least explicit in (6b) and most explicit in (6e), with (6c) and (6d) falling in between. These differences in degree of explicitness are analysable in terms of the relative proportions of decoding and inference involved:
    Degrees of Explicitness (Sperber and Wilson 1995: 182)
    The greater the relative contribution of decoding, and the smaller the relative contribution of pragmatic inference, the more explicit an explicature will be (and inversely).
    When the speaker's meaning is quite explicit, as in (6e), and in particular when each word in an utterance is used to convey one of its encoded meanings, what we are calling the explicature is close to what might be common-sensically described as the explicit content, or what is said, or the literal meaning of the utterance."
    (Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber, Meaning and Relevance. Cambridge University Press, 2012)

  • Explicature and Higher-Level Explicature
    "If someone said to you
    (9) have you seen my book
    you'd need to take a lot of context into account in order to determine what the speaker meant by their utterance. If the speaker was your flat-mate and you had a habit of borrowing her property without permission, she might be asking you if you'd 'borrowed' the book she owned (explicature) and the utterance might be taken as a demand for its return. But if your tutor said it to you as she handed back an essay, you might take it to be a semi-rhetorical inquiry (higher level explicature) as to whether you had read the book she had written (explicature) implying that if you had, you'd have written a better essay. These inferences, [I want my book back] or [If you want to write a decent essay, you'd better read my book], are implicatures. Unlike explicatures, an implicature is likely to have a propositional form different from that of the original utterance.

    "So in order to understand 'Have you seen my book?' in an optimally relevant way, we need to recover an implicature."
    (Peter Grundy, Doing Pragmatics, 3rd ed. Hodder Education, 2008)