What Is Relevance Theory in Terms of Communication?

A tiger in the garden
Justin Lo / Getty mages

In the fields of pragmatics and semantics (among others), relevance theory is the principle that the communication process involves not only encoding, transfer, and decoding of messages, but also numerous other elements, including inference and context. It is also called the principle of relevance.

The foundation for relevance theory was established by cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson in "Relevance: Communication and Cognition" (1986; revised 1995). Since then, Sperber and Wilson have expanded and deepened discussions of relevance theory in numerous books and articles.

Examples and Observations

  • "Every act of ostensive communication communicates a presumption of its own optimal relevance."
  • "Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1986) can be defined as an attempt to work out in detail one of [Paul] Grice's maxims of conversation. Even though relevance theory departs from Grice's vision of communication on a number of fundamental issues, the main point of convergence between the two models is the assumption that communication (both verbal and nonverbal) requires the ability to attribute mental states to others. Sperber and Wilson do not completely reject the idea that communication requires a code model, but reassess its scope by the addition of an inferential component. According to Sperber and Wilson, the code model only accounts for the first phase of linguistic treatment of an utterance that provides the hearer with the linguistic input, that is enriched through inferential processes in order to obtain the speaker's meaning."​

Intentions, Attitudes, and Contexts

  • "Like most pragmatists, Sperber and Wilson emphasize that understanding an utterance is not simply a matter of linguistic decoding. It involves identifying (a) what the speaker intended to say, (b) what the speaker intended to imply, (c) the speaker's intended attitude to what was said and implied, and (d) the intended context (Wilson 1994). Thus, the intended interpretation of an utterance is the intended combination of explicit content, contextual assumptions and implications, and the speaker's intended attitude to these (ibid.). . . .
  • "The role of context in communication and understanding has not been studied in detail in Gricean approaches to pragmatics. Relevance theory makes it a central concern, raising fundamental questions such as: How is the appropriate context selected? How is it that from the huge range of assumptions available at the time of utterance, hearers restrict themselves to the intended ones?"

Cognitive Effects and Processing Effort

  • "Relevance theory defines cognitive effects for an individual as adjustments to the way an individual represents the world. Seeing a robin in my garden means that I now know that there is a robin in my garden so I have changed the way in which I am representing the world. Relevance theory claims that the more cognitive effects a stimulus has, the more relevant it is. Seeing a tiger in the garden gives rise to more cognitive effects than seeing a robin so this is a more relevant stimulus.
    "The more cognitive effects a stimulus has, the more relevant it is. But we can assess relevance not only in terms of the number of effects derivable from a stimulus. Processing effort also plays a role. Sperber and Wilson claim that the more mental effort involved in processing a stimulus the less relevant it is. Compare (75) and (76):
    (75) I can see a tiger in the garden.
    (76) When I look outside, I can see a tiger in the garden.
    Assuming that the tiger is the most significant thing to notice in the garden and that nothing significant follows from the suggestion that I need to look to see the tiger, then (75) is a more relevant stimulus than (76). This follows because it will enable us to derive a similar range of effects but with less effort needed to process the words."

Underdeterminacy of Meaning

  • "Sperber and Wilson were among the first to explore the idea that linguistically encoded material in an utterance typically falls short of the proposition expressed by the speaker. In such cases, it is not clear whether 'what is said' is what the words say or the proposition the speaker expressed. Sperber and Wilson, therefore, coined the term explicature for assumptions explicitly communicated by an utterance.
    "A lot of recent work in relevance theory and elsewhere has focused on the consequences of this linguistic underdeterminacy of meaning. One recent development is an account of loose use, hyperbole, and metaphor in terms of occasion-specific broadening and narrowing of the concept expressed in a word.
    "Sperber and Wilson also have a radical theory of irony, partly put forward before the publication of Relevance. The claim is that an ironic utterance is one which (1) achieves relevance through semblance to a thought or another utterance (i.e. is 'interpretive'); (2) expresses a dissociative attitude toward the target thought or utterance, and (3) is not explicitly marked as interpretive or dissociative.
    "Other aspects of relevance theory's account of communication include its theory of context selection, and of the place of indeterminacy in communication. These aspects of the account rest on the notions of manifestness and mutual manifestness."

Manifestness and Mutual Manifestness

  • "In relevance theory, the notion of mutual knowledge is replaced by the notion of mutual manifestness. It is enough, Sperber and Wilson argue, for the contextual assumptions needed in interpretation to be mutually manifest to communicator and addressee in order for communication to take place. Manifestness is defined as follows: 'a fact is manifest to an individual at a given time if and only if he is capable of representing it mentally and accepting its representation as true or probably true' (Sperber and Wilson 1995: 39). The communicator and addressee do not need to mutually know the contextual assumptions required for interpretation. The addressee does not even have to have these assumptions stored in his memory. He must simply be able to construct them, either on the basis of what he can perceive in his immediate physical environment or on the basis of assumptions already stored in memory."


  • Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, "Relevance: Communication and Cognition". Oxford University Press, 1986
  • Sandrine Zufferey, "Lexical Pragmatics and Theory of Mind: The Acquisition of Connectives". John Benjamins, 2010
  • Elly Ifantidou, "Evidentials and Relevance". John Benjamins, 2001
  • Billy Clark, "Relevance Theory". Cambridge University Press, 2013
  • Nicholas Allott, "Key Terms in Pragmatics". Continuum, 2010
  • Adrian Pilkington, "Poetic Effects: A Relevance Theory Perspective". John Benjamins, 2000
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Relevance Theory in Terms of Communication?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/relevance-theory-communication-1691907. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What Is Relevance Theory in Terms of Communication? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/relevance-theory-communication-1691907 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Relevance Theory in Terms of Communication?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/relevance-theory-communication-1691907 (accessed June 4, 2023).