The Cooperative Principle and implicature

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As we've seen from the previous modules, we're starting to get some idea of how a speaker's "force" can be different from the literal meaning of what they say, but we're still lacking a good account of how these two are connected. In this module we'll learn about the most influential such account, which forms the basis of much thinking about pragmatics for the past half century and will also form the basis for most of the rest of our class.

To introduce this idea, let's first look at an example. The below clip from the show Breaking Bad is crammed full of pragmatics, just like most interactions are: there are many spots where someone means something more (and/or something different) than what they are literally saying.

First off, I want to focus on one example near the end of the conversation. The couple in this scene, Walt and Skyler, have just been visiting a house they are thinking of buying. Skyler obviously likes the house, but Walt is unimpressed, and wants something bigger; even though they have a small family and little income now, he believes that in the future they'll have a bigger family and more money. Then they have this exchange:

On the surface, what Skyler says seems to be completely irrelevant to Walt's question. He asked why they should buy that house (although we could easily argue that his illocutionary act was not actually a question, but making an argument, i.e., suggesting that it's not good to buy this house). If we treat his question as a question, then it seems like it would have made sense for her to answer it, i.e., to offer some reason why they should buy the house. Even if we treat his question not as a question but as an argument for why they shouldn't get this house, we should still expect Skyler to provide some sort of counterargument. But instead she asked another question that, at the surface, looks irrelevant to his remark.

Any competent speaker, however, will of course not think what Skyler said is irrelevant. We instead recognize that she's making a point of her own: that they don't have enough money for the kind of house Walt wants. The real question is: how do we understand that?

The Cooperative Principle

A solution to this problem was suggested by H. P. Grice, who argued that speakers and listeners assume the people they are talking with are being cooperative. "Cooperative", in Grice's sense, doesn't mean they are being nice to each other or helping each other accomplish all of their goals; rather, he meant they are cooperating in having a conversation. (Keep in mind that people who have fundamentally different goals—like lawyers arguing against each other in a case, or regular people arguing with each other in an everyday argument—might still "cooperate" to have a conversation, even though they are each hoping to get different things out of that conversation.) Grice proposed something called the "Cooperative Principle": specifically, he said that we expect cooperative speakers to "make [their] conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged." While this is wordy and confusing, what it really means is: if speakers are being cooperative, they will say things that fit the purpose of the conversation. And the way we communicate and have conversations and understand each other relies on this assumption.

Clearly, people do not always do that, at least not at the level of their literal meaning. We just saw an example above. People often say things which, if we take them literally, would look uncooperative. But what Grice claimed is: if we have no reason to believe a person is uncooperative, and then they say something that seems uncooperative, we will search for a way to interpret it that makes it cooperative.

Let's look again at Skyler's utterance "Did you win the lottery and not tell me?" On the surface, this looks irrelevant to Walt's question. We could then decide that she's just uncooperative and is not participating in the same conversation as Walt, but in this case we have no reason to think that; as far as we can tell, she is fully and cooperatively participating in this conversation. So we instead assume that what she said was not actually irrelevant. In other words, she must be meaning something other than the literal content of her utterance, and this "other" meaning must be something relevant. From there, a few more logical leaps can get us to guessing that what Skyler really means is "we don't have so much money".

In pragmatics (at least this particular area of pragmatics) we are not really interested in situations where a person is being uncooperative because they are just a jerk (although that certainly does happen from time to time). Rather, we assume that most communication is cooperative, and we are interested in cases where a person's literal meaning looks cooperative but their actual meaning (their "speaker meaning", "force", or "what they said") is actually cooperative. In other words, cases just like the example above. Sometimes people may say uncooperative things because they're just liars or jerks or weirdos, but explaining this behaviour is not really the domain of pragmatics; the domain of pragmatics is explaining how people communicate messages that are different from what their words literally mean. One of the main goals of pragmatics is to explain how we so easily figure out the hidden cooperative meanings when speakers say something that looks uncooperative on the surface.


In Grice's terms, the stuff that Skyler meant without explicitly saying it (i.e., her "what is meant") is called an implicature. When Skyler said "Did you win the lottery and not tell me?, she implicated (or "implied") that she and Walt don't have enough money. Implicatures are everything that people mean other than the literal meaning of whatever they said.

Be careful to distinguish between what speakers do and what hearers do. "Implicating" (also sometimes called "implying") is something that speakers do. If Walt correctly understands what Skyler means, we would say he inferred what she meant; "inferring" is what hearers do. (Also keep in mind that, as mentioned in the first module, I am using the terms "speakers" and "hearers" here loosely, but the same points here apply to writing and signing.) In non-technical English people often use the word "infer" to refer to what pragmaticists call "implicating" or "implying"—for example, then-senator Kamala Harris, when asking the then attorney general if the president had ever "asked or suggested" that he investigate anyone, she then clarified that "Perhaps they've suggested... hinted... inferred." For our purposes, however, we should distinguish these.

The speaker's intentions

To figure out what Skyler meant, we had to start out by thinking about her state of mind—we had to assume that she was cooperating, and we had to guess what she might want to convey when she uttered her seemingly irrelevant question. In fact, Grice believed that "meaning" itself (in the "what is meant" sense) comes from thinking about what a speaker wants. Specifically, according to Grice, a speaker means something when (a) the speaker wants the listener to believe this thing, and (b) the speaker wants the listener to know that the speaker wants the listener to believe that thing. (There is also a third part to this, and pragmatics people say it's super important, but I find it confusing so I'm skipping it here.) For example, Skyler's utterance means that they don't have enough money because (a) she wants Walt to believe (or realize) that they don't have enough money, and (b) she wants Walt to recognize that this is what she wants him to believe. Griceans call (a) her "what intention"—because it's what she wants Walt to believe—and they call (b) her "that intention"—because she wants Walt to understand that (a) is her "what intention". Anyway, a person hearing Skyler's utterance (Walt, or an outside observer like us) figures out her meaning by inferring that those are the things she wants. If Walt figures out her "that intention" (b), the communication has been successful—even if she might not successfully get him to change his mind, she at least successfully got him to understand what she meant by "Did you win the lottery and not tell me?"

(This particular bit about the "what intention" and the "that intention" is a part that I myself find quite confusing. I also rarely find myself actually using it in pragmatic analysis—that is to say, while I often refer to the Cooperative Principle when I'm trying to reason about what something means and why, I almost never refer to the "what intention" and the "that intention". While these concepts are fundamental to Grice's theory, I just don't think we need to worry about them too much in our own practice. If you're interested in learning more about them—or if you're horribly confused about them now and want to be less confused—chapter 2 of Noveck has the clearest description of the concept that I've seen.)

Even if we never think about the details of the "what intention" and the "that intention" again, there is a deeper fundamental insight there: the idea what a speaker "means" is based on what the speaker intends to communicate. This helps explain the difference between, e.g., when a person says "I'm the queen of England" to express incredulity (in a context like, e.g., "You say you're one of the top videogamers of the world? Yeah, and I'm the queen of England") vs. when a person says "I'm the queen of England" to try to deceive someone (like what e-mail scammers do). In the second case, the speaker wants you to believe he's the queen of England, and in the first case he does not (instead he wants you to believe something else, namely, that he thinks your claim is ridiculous). This idea, the idea that meaning is based on the speaker's intentions, is one of the most important ideas of pragmatics, and we will return to it again and again in the following modules (particularly in the module on Gricean maxims).

What we've said so far about the Cooperative Principle is still quite sketchy and you can probably see there are many issues that we still need to work out—for example, how do we decide someone is cooperative? and what are the "logical leaps" we need to get from the irrelevant literal meaning to the relevant pragmatic meaning? But the basic idea here is really important. In particular, the important part of Grice's proposal is that speakers and listeners are always engaging in critical thinking about what the people they're talking to might be thinking, and what one person might want the other person to believe. This is the fundamental insight of Gricean theory; people don't communicate by just following rules, but by reasoning about one another's thoughts, beliefs, and goals. We will spend most of the rest of this class working out the details of just how they do that.

Video summary

In-class activities

Have students go through the Breaking Bad scene that we started with and identify more instances where someone says something that is apparently uncooperative but which actually can be reinterpreted to mean something cooperative. A few examples I noticed:

Zufferey et al. (chapter 4) share an interesting example of an implicature (this example itself comes from Solan & Tiersma, 2005). This example involves a legal case in which some guy was accused of hiding his money in Swiss bank accounts to avoid paying taxes or something like that. During the trial, a lawyer asked him whether he had ever had any Swiss bank accounts. The man replied, "The company had an account there for about six months, in Zurich."

This statement seems to implicate that he himself did not have a bank account. After all, if he had had a Swiss bank account, then, according to the Cooperative Principle, he would have said so; therefore, by saying something else, he implies that he has never had a Swiss bank account. In reality, though, this man had had a Swiss bank account, and in fact later he was put on trial again for perjury (the crime of lying in court while having sworn an oath to tell the truth), specifically because of this implicature.

The challenge that Zufferey and colleagues raise about this example is: why does an implicature arise at all? Actually, this guy was not being cooperative. And, more seriously, the people listening to him (most importantly, the judge) don't even believe he is being cooperative. In fact, the judge believed the man was being dishonest (that's the whole reason why the man was put on trial for perjury after this: because the judge understood that the man was trying to suggest he had never had a Swiss bank account even though he actually did).

Recall that, on the Gricean account, implicatures arise when we assume someone is respecting the Cooperative Principle. So, if we already believe someone is not cooperating in this way, that account seems to predict that we would not be able to understand any implicatures. This is clearly not the case, though, because we can understand the implicature in this man's utterance "The company had an account there".

Have students discuss: is there any way to reconcile this data with the idea of the Cooperative Principle? Can this example still be explained via the Cooperative Principle, or do we need to throw the Cooperative Principle out?

(There's not a clear right or wrong answer to this, so whatever students come up with is fine. Personally, I think the Cooperative Principle still works here. Even when we don't think a person is cooperating, we can still recover intended implicatures by assuming what the speaker must have intended to convey to a person who does believe they are cooperating. In other words, as a listener, I might think "the speaker's thought process is: 'if this listener thinks I am cooperating, they will understand my utterance in this way...'", and based on that I can understand what implicature the speaker would have intended to convey to a hypothetical listener who believes the speaker is cooperative. [I guess this is an example third-order theory of mind: thinking about what a speaker thinks I will think he means.] Zufferey et al. also acknowledge this argument [bottom of p. 78] but they don't agree with it.)

We began this class with a look at a message in a bottle. Recall that, back then, we talked about how that letter, which literally said that Jonathon hopes he and Mary can keep in touch, might have actually meant that he very much did not want to keep in touch.

At that time, though, we only had a vague and non-technical idea of what "meaning" is. Now we have fleshed out a more specific explanation of what it means for someone to "mean" something.

Does this new understanding of "meaning" change the way we would want to explain the meaning of Jonathon's letter? Can we still say that Jonathon "means" he does not want to keep in touch with Mary?

(While there's no right or wrong answer to this question, I hope students will recognize that Jonathon might not have "meant", in the Gricean sense, that he doesn't want to keep in touch with Mary, because he did not intend for Mary to read what he wrote and use it to infer that meaning. The next discussion topic below this one will also touch on a related issue.)

Recall that, according to Grice's view, speakers mean something when they intend for a hearer for form some belief and to recognize that the speaker wants them to form that belief. In other words, for there to be "meaning", there must be a listener or audience.

Keeping that in mind, here's an example that challenges that idea. In this example from the Arkady Martine novel A Desolation Called Peace, a character is talking to a high-ranking government official, "the Councilor". They are speaking a language which involves grammatically encoded levels of formality (similar to Japanese). During the conversation, this happens:

You hate us quite profoundly, she thought, addressing the Councilor in her mind with the sort of formality used for precocious crèche-students or new cadets, a calculated and enjoyable and invisible insult.

Here we have an example of a character thinking some linguistic expression (it's clearly not just an abstract thought or concept, because it has linguistic grammar and that's an important part of the message) which is not intended to be heard by anyone!

This sort of thing is common in drama, film, TV shows, and literature. Ever watched a movie or show in which A says something to B and then, right after B leaves, mutters "Asshole! under their breath, or something like that? There are multiple TV Tropes pages full of examples of this kind of stuff.

Have students discuss what these sorts of examples mean for Grice's theory of meaning. Can they be reconciled with it, or do they fundamentally challenge his idea?

A few possible ideas students might consider:

⟵ Speech acts and their rules
Violating maxims ⟶

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2022-04-27. CC-BY-4.0.