As we saw in the previous
module, any utterance has an infinite number of stronger alternatives,
but only implies the denial of a few of them. How can we solve this problem?
First of all, it's clear that we only consider alternatives
which are relevant to the context. So, uttering "That's a cat"
doesn't imply anything about a stronger alternative like "That's a
cat and I like ice cream" if "I like ice cream" is not relevant
to the conversation. So alternatives like this, which involve juxtaposing
two totally unrelated propositions, are not considered unless they're in
a special context that makes them relevant (e.g., "I'm all out of
bubblegum" can imply "I'm going to kick your ass" only
when the context indicates
that chewing bubblegum and kicking ass are related). This constraint
can already rule out most of the possible alternatives.
Secondly, we probably don't consider alternatives that
are substantially more complex or wordy than what the speaker said (see
Geurts, chapter 6, for more discussion).
Keep in mind that the logic of quantity implicatures goes like, "The
speaker could have said X but didn't say X, so I guess that means
the speaker doesn't believe X". This logic only holds if X is approximately
as easy to say as whatever the speaker really did say. If X is substantially
more complex, then the logic doesn't work anymore; when we ask ourselves
"Why didn't the speaker say X?", the answer doesn't have to be "because
the speaker doesn't believe X", it could instead just be "because X is
too wordy or too much work to say." This can also help to explain why
uttering a short utterance doesn't necessarily imply a denial of lots
of much longer utterances.
This second constraint is a bit tricky, because
sometimes we do make implicatures about longer utterances, as
we saw in the previous module. It's not exactly clear how much longer
or more complex an alternative needs to be before it stops being considered
as an alternative; it's also not exactly clear when this complexity
constraint does or does not apply. And, finally, it's not clear to me
how we can measure complexity—surely mere number of words is
not sufficient, because an utterance with a few long words may be
more "complex" than one with many short words, and things like
syntactic and semantic structure may be additional sources of complexity
even when number of words is held constant.
For the rest of this module, we will examine some interesting
ways that language and context influence which alternatives become
available for implicatures.
Availability of alternatives
One of the things that affects which alternatives we
consider is our knowledge about which words are commonly used in a
given situation. Geurts (chapters 2 and 6) discusses several interesting
examples of this. For instance, in English, saying "I hurt my
finger" seems to imply that the finger I hurt was not my thumb,
but saying "I hurt my toe" does not seem to imply
that the toe I hurt was not my big toe. (In other words, I can say
"I hurt my toe" when I hurt my big toe, but it seems
weird or misleading to say "I hurt my finger" when I
actually hurt my thumb.) This pattern is probably due to the
fact that in English we have a one-word expression for "thumb"
and we don't have any common, colloquial one-word expression for
"big toe". (There is a word hallux, but only specialists
would ever use a word like that. It's certainly not thrown around
in everyday conversation.)
We can see a similar example with family words.
In English, if I say "Joe's brother is an architect",
this usually would not imply that I don't know whether Joe's
brother is older or younger. Because we don't have any word
for "older brother" or "younger brother", it seems that we
don't consider alternatives like "Joe's older brother is
an architect"; these alternatives aren't relevant, so
the original utterance doesn't raise any implicatures about
them. In Chinese, however, if we used the word 兄弟
("brother"), we might imply that we don't know if the brother
is older or younger. This is because Chinese does
have words for older brother (哥哥) and younger
brother (弟弟), and in fact these words tend to
be more common than the unspecified word for "brother". So,
if someone uses that word, a listener would treat
these as relevant alternatives, and would wonder why the
speaker went out of their way to use a less common word
when a semantically stronger and more common word was
available; in this situation a listener may well infer that
the speaker doesn't know if the brother is younger or older.
The last example from Geurts that we'll discuss
is animals. If I say "I saw an animal outside last night",
I probably imply that I'm not sure what kind of animal it was
(maybe it was too dark to see clearly). This implicature happens
because there are stronger alternatives available; for instance,
if I had seen a dog, I could have just said "I saw a dog
outside last night". This is the typical sort of quantity
implicature we have been discussing. But now imagine I do
say "I saw a dog outside last night"... does this
imply that I don't know what kind of dog I saw? It doesn't
seem to imply that (or, at least, this implicature seems
less likely than the implicature from "I saw an animal"
to "I don't know what kind of animal it was"). Why doesn't
this implicature happen? The same logic we saw with
animal and dog should work here as well;
for example, if I knew that I had seen a pug outside,
I could have said "I saw a pug outside" (pug
is a stronger alternative than dog). It seems like
we don't get this implicature, though, because pug
is more specific than usually necessary for conversation.
It seems like we have some default, prototypical level
of specificity; in a "normal" context it seems we are
expected to be at least specific enough to say if something
is a dog, cat, fish, or whatever, but we don't necessarily
need to say what breed of dog, what species of fish, etc.
This example also leads us towards examining
the role of context, because these default expectations about
specificity may be overriden by context. For example, at a
dog show we do expect people to be more specific about breeds
of dog, so if someone just says "I saw a dog" we
might indeed be more likely to infer that they didn't get
a good enough look to know what kind of dog it was.
The difficulty of determining alternatives and contexts
You may have noticed by now that we've been
quite vague about what constitutes "context" and what makes
alternatives "relevant". While this may be a problem, we also
should acknowledge that these things are not always accurately
determined in real conversation, either. People do sometimes
get the wrong implicatures, or fail to get the right implicatures,
because they consider different alternatives than what the
A prominent example is discussion around the
Black Lives Matter
movement. Some people consider this slogan offensive because,
they claim, they believe it implies that not all lives
matter. This is a standard quantity implicature: "all lives
matter" entails "Black lives matter" and is thus a stronger
That interpretation is misunderstanding the
intended message, however, because "all lives matter"
is not a relevant alternative. The slogan "Black
lives matter" was not introduced in response to a
question asking whether or not all lives matter; it was
introduced in response to the question of whether or not
Black lives matter. In other words, it was not uttered to
deny the proposition "all lives matter"; it was uttered
to deny the proposition "Black lives don't matter". (While
people might not have been uttering "Black lives don't matter"
explicitly, it is nevertheless clear that much of our society
assumes Black lives don't matter, as evidenced by the way
Black people are treated by police and legal systems
in places like the US and Canada; see, e.g., books
by Michelle Alexander
By now, everyone and their grandmother has
written explainers of this issue; white people explaining
"Black Lives Matter" to other, even more clueless white
people has become a super popular genre of online writing. Here's
by Taylor Jones and one by me.
Anyway, the bottom line is, this is an example
of a situatiton where context determines the relevance
of alternatives; here a semantically stronger alternative
(in terms of the entailment-based definition we saw in
the previous module) is one that's not relevant to the
One complication I did not mention with the "Black lives matter" example
is that nowadays "all lives matter" also has an implicature
strongly associated with it.
Many people who support the Black Lives Matter movement find the
expression "all lives matter" offensive (particularly
when it's uttered in response to someone saying "Black lives
matter"). For example, in the time leading up to the 2016
US presidential election, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton
for saying "all lives matter".
From a purely semantic perspective, this shouldn't happen. "All
lives matter" entails "Black lives matter". So, the interpretation
that people dislike must be something that comes from pragmatics,
rather than semantics.
Discuss and figure out what the implicature commonly associated with
"all lives matter" is and how it is derived.