Clausal implicatures

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(Note: I am including this module here because it's closely related to the issues of epistemic state and competence that we have developed over the past few modules. But it also relies heavily on the concept of presupposition, which we won't address until a later module. I will try to briefly explain the relevant concepts here, but if you find this module difficult to understand you may want to revisit it after you have done the Presupposition module.)

What do you think is the difference between knowing and thinking (or believing)?

To make this more concrete, let's consider some examples. Imagine that some guy has been asking you a lot of questions about an upcoming test, and you ask me why this guy keeps bothering you so much. Imagine I respond with one of the following two sentences:

  1. Because he knows you have the answers.
  2. Because he thinks you have the answers.

(In the second sentence, you could replace think with believe and it will be about the same.)

What do those sentences each suggest about what I, the speaker, believe?

know presupposes

know is a special kind of verb, called a factive verb. An utterance like X knows P presupposes that "P" is true. (This issue will be addressed in much more detail in the "Presupposition" module.) So, for example, if I say "He knows you have the answers", I presuppose (without directly saying) that you have the answers. But, of course, as we have been discussing the epistemic state in these last few modules, we can explain this more accurately: if I say "He knows you have the answers", this presupposes that I believe that you have the answers. (My belief might be wrong; I might say this sentence in a situation where you don't actually have the answers but I wrongly believe that you do.)

think implicates

What about sentence #2? How is that one different from #1?

As we saw above, sentence #1 suggests that I (the speaker) believe you do indeed have the answers. Sentence #2 does not. In fact, it seems to suggest that I don't believe you have the answers, or, even extreme, I believe you don't have the answers. (We could paraphrase it as: "He thinks you have the answers—even though you actually don't.")

The big question is, where does this meaning come from? Below I will argue that it's an implicature, but a different kind than we have seen before.

Here's a real-world example, which also includes an explicit cancellation (which helps show that this is indeed a conversational implicature). In an episode of the TV show Breaking Bad, the main character, Walt, discovers that his former colleague Jesse recently tried to burn Walt's house down. Walt tries to explain to his wife why Jesse did that, and he says, "He got upset over something he thinks I did.... I did do it. But I did it for very good reasons." Here, "He got upset over something he thinks I did" seems like it might normally imply that it's something Jesse only "thinks" Walt did but in fact Walt didn't actually do it. In the following sentence, though, Walt cancels this implicature ("I did do it"), clarifying that not only does Jesse think Walt did this bad thing, but Walt did indeed do it.

How this implicature is different from the others we've seen?

The example with which we began this series of modules was the utterance "Josh is smart", which we took to imply that Josh is not brilliant (or, more accurately, that the speaker believes Josh is not brilliant). As we saw, two steps are required to get this meaning: first we figure out a weak implicature (the speaker does not believe Josh is brilliant), and then a strong implicature (the speaker believes Josh is not brilliant).

We saw that the weak implicature comes from denying some stronger thing the speaker could have said: she could have said "Josh is brilliant", but she didn't say that, so she must not believe it. The strong implicature, on the other hand, comes from applying the Competence Assumption (we assume she believes something, so if she does not believe Josh is brilliant then she must believe he is non-brilliant; she can't just have no belief).

But the implicature we have seen in this module ("He thinks you have the answers" implying that I don't believe you have the answers) is not directly comparable to these. It doesn't come from denying a stronger statement (the implicature associated with "He thinks you have the answers" is not "He doesn't know you have the answers"). Instead, it seems to be denying what I could have presupposed if I had uttered a stronger statement. That is, if I had said "He knows you have the answers", I would have presupposed that I believe you have the answers. Since I chose not to say that, and therefore not to presuppose that I believe you have the answers, this strongly implies that I don't believe you have the answers. (And maybe even that I believe you don't have the answers! This latter strengthening of the implicature can easily be explained with the Competence Assumption.)

So we seem to have two different kinds of implicature here: one that arises by denying some stronger utterance the speaker could have said ("Josh is smart" implying "Josh isn't brilliant"), and one that arises by denying not a stronger utterance itself, but a presupposition of a stronger utterance. (Either of these can then also lead to a third kind of implicature, a "strong implicature", through the application of the Competence Assumption.) What is this second kind of implicature?

Clausal implicatures

The "Josh is not brilliant" type of implicature, which comes from denying a stronger utterance, is traditionally called a "scalar implicature". The new implicature we're seeing in this module is an example of what has been called a clausal implicature (or some semanticists call it an antipresupposition). Clausal implicatures can be realized in the following way (slightly modified from Levinson, chapter 3.2):

  1. A speaker says some complex sentence p, which contains an embedded expression q. (In our example, "He thinks you have the answers" is p, and "you have the answers" is q.)
  2. p neither entails nor presupposes q.
  3. The speaker could have said some similar sentence that does entail or presuppose q. (As we saw above, I could have said "He knows you have the answers", which would presuppose that you have the answers.)
  4. Since the speaker chose not to say that other sentence, the speaker has implicated that the speaker is not sure q is true. (If I choose to say "He thinks you have the answers" rather than "He knows you have the answers", I implicate that I don't know you have the answers.)

(Step 4 could then be further strengthened via the Competence Assumption—to go from implicating that I don't know you have the answers, to implicating that I know you don't have the answers. But this is separate from the clausal implicature itself.)

Clausal implicature is much less discussed and much less studied than scalar implicature. (On Google Scholar today I found 6350 papers that include the term "scalar implicatures", but only 228 that include the term "clausal implicatures". And Zufferey et al., chapter 6, say that the concept of clausal implicature is no longer current in pragmatic theory.) But maybe the concept of clausal implicature can help explain some pragmatic phenomena.

Another example of clausal implicature?

To understand what clausal implicatures are, let's look at another example. The sentence below has several implicatures:

According to the analysis we described above, we would say that implicature (a) is a scalar implicature (it comes from denying the stronger utterance "The Russians and the Americans have just landed on Mars"), whereas implicatures (b) and (c) are clausal implicatures. (b) arises because the speaker could have said "The Russians and the Americans have landed on Mars", which would have entailed that the Russians landed on Mars; but the speaker chose not to say that, so the speaker has implied that they don't believe the Russians landed on Mars. (c) arises in much the same way.

Are clausal implicatures really a thing?

At this point we might question whether "clausal implicature", as a separate category of implicature, is even needed. Can the phenomena explained by clausal implicature be better explained by other concepts we already have?

The disjunction example above ("The Russians or the Americans have just landed on Mars") certainly can be explained without the idea of clausal implicatures. Implicatures (b) and (c) arise because the speaker chose not to say "The Russians have landed on Mars" or "The Americans have landed on Mars", respectively; each of these implicatures is the denial of the corresponding alternative sentence. The fact that these don't become strong implicatures (i.e., the fact that the remain as weak implicatures like "The speaker doesn't know whether the Russians have landed on Mars", instead of strong implicatures like "the speaker knows that the Russians have not landed on Mars"), is explained by not applying the Competence Assumption in disjunction—as we already saw in the previous module. The concepts of strong implicatures and the Competence Assumption are already independently motivated (as we have seen in the previous modules). So, these disjunction sentences are not evidence for the existence of a category like "clausal implicatures", and in fact I don't think they exhibit clausal implicatures at all.

But implicature with think (or believe) discussed in this module is trickier. It does not seem possible to explain this as just another scalar implicature. If I utter "He thinks you have the answers", the scalar implicature mechanism could yield the implicature that I believe he does not know you have the answers, but it cannot cannot yield the implicature that I, the speaker, do not believe you have the answers. Thus, to explain this implicature, it seems like we have to either accept that clausal implicatures are a real thing and are different from scalar implicatures, or we need to find another way to explain where this implicature comes from.

Video summary

In-class activities

Looking back at the definition of clausal implicatures above, note that clausal implicatures (as traditionally defined) come from denying a presupposition or entailment of some alternative utterance that could have been said. If we take that literally, then scalar implicatures also seem to be clausal implicatures: "Josh is smart" implies that Josh is not brilliant, i.e., it denies the literal meaning of a stronger utterance "Josh is brilliant". Since the utterance "Josh is brilliant" entails that Josh is brilliant (that's its literal meaning) and the scalar implicature denies that, the scalar implicature is thus denying an entailment of an alternative utterance, just like a clausal implicature does.

So are scalar implicatures just a sub-type of clausal implicatures?

I can see two ways to get out of this and maintain the distinction between scalar and clausal implicatures.

⟵ Disjunction and ignorance
What's a stronger alternative? ⟶

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2022-03-22. CC-BY-4.0.