So far we have generally been describing implicatures in terms
of what a speaker "means" or wants to convey. But this is actually an
oversimplification; we often need to think of implicatures instead as telling
us something about what a speaker does or does not believe. In the
next several modules we will see how this helps us notice several very
First, though, we need to highlight an important point that we
have mostly been ignoring thus far: one utterance can imply multiple different
things at the same time.
In the previous module we saw some
examples of how the same stentence may imply different things in different
contexts. But that's not what I'm talking to here. What I mean is that the an
utterance in one given context may simultaneously imply more than one
thing. Let's see an example.
In the below clip from the musical My Fair Lady,
Freddy has recently fallen in love with Eliza ("Miss Doolittle") and has
gone to her house to profess his love for her. While he's waiting for her to
come to the door, he sings about how happy he is to be on the street where
she lives, and he says [sings], "I have often walked down this street before,
but the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before."
What this statement implies is that he's floating high above
the ground (this itself is, of course, not literal, but is a metaphor for
how happy he is). But to get to that meaning, we need several implicatures.
First of all, he doesn't literally say he's floating above the pavement now;
he says that the pavement used to stay beneath his feet in the past.
This seems to imply that it's not staying there now (because if it were,
he wouldn't say "the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before";
that seems to be an irrelevant, extra, unnecessary detail, in violation of
the maxim of quantity, unless we infer that he really means the pavement
is not staying beneath his feet now).
That in of itself doesn't get us the interpretation that he's
floating above the ground, though. Even if he's floating above the ground,
the pavement would still literally be beneath his feet. So we also need to
infer that he means the pavement used to stay directly beneath his
feet (i.e., touching his feet—or at least his shoes!), and now it
So, in short, for us to get from Freddy's actual utterance to
the idea that he's floating above the ground (metaphorically), the utterance
needs to imply that "staying beneath his feet" means directly touching his
feet, and that, while the pavement used to do that, it is not doing
(The part about "beneath" is actually trickier than
I have suggested so far. Whether this is actually an implicature is arguable.
Some other approaches may instead argue that this is actually just what the word
"beneath" literally means, or that this meaning is accomplished through
"lexical narrowing" rather than through an implicature. I'll ignore this
complication for now, but for further discussion of it check out the in-class
activity at the end of this module.)
There's a similar (but made-up and not as fun) example in
a paper of mine:
"Carlyle asked Thisbe if she would lend him a thousand dollars. Thisbe scoffed
and walked out of the room." Here, the sentence Thisbe scoffed and walked
out of the room implies two things: it implies that she first scoffed and
then walked out of the room, and it implies that she will not lend Carlyle a
thousand dollars. (Unlike the previous example, though, the ultimate interpretation
doesn't seem to depend on both implicatures; I feel like I would still
understand that she's not willing to lend the money, regardless of the order in
which the scoffing and the walking out of the room occur. This distinction seems
related to the distinction Noveck [chapter 14] makes between voluntary
and imposed implicatures. "Voluntary" implicatures arise when the literal
meaning of an utterance already provides a meaning that is roughly good enough
for the conversation at hand, but hearers can make an extra effort to get an
even more specific one; here, the implicature that Thisbe scoffed and then
walked out of the room in that order seems like a voluntary implicature.
"Imposed" implicatures are ones that are necessary to understand what the
speaker wants to communicate; the implicature that Thisbe will not lend Carlyle
a thousand dollars seems like an imposed implicature here, since you don't know
the point of the utterance if you don't figure out this implicature.)
With these preliminaries out of the way, we can go on to
the next module to see one very important and systematic
way in which an utterance can yield multiple implicatures; after that, we will
explore a few interesting phenomena that these different implicatures can help
In the analysis above, I assumed that beneath literally means something
like "anywhere below" (e.g., it sounds pretty normal if I'm e.g. standing at
the observation deck near the top of the Burj
Khalifa and I say "I can see all of Dubai spread out beneath me"), and that
it takes an implicature to interpret it as meaning directly below (i.e.,
touching). But I also hinted that this analysis may be problematic. Let's dig
a bit deeper into this.
One alternative explanation of where the meaning comes from is that this just
is already what the word beneath already means. This seems straightforward
so I don't think I need to explain it further. The other alternative is that
the meaning may come from "lexical narrowing" that takes place during the process
of going from abstract meaning to "what is said". This may need some explanation,
so let's unpack it a little.
Implicatures, in the classical Gricean sense, take place during the process of
going from "what is said" to "what is meant". But recall, as we discussed way
back in the "Three Kinds of Meaning" module,
pragmatics is also involved in determining "what is said". At that time we
discussed this in terms of polysemy—when a word has multiple meanings,
we need pragmatics to determine which particular meaning is being said. The
important idea here is that not everything pragmatic is necessarily an
The idea of "lexical narrowing" is very similar to this. The idea is, again, that
pretty much all words have vague and flexible meanings, and that in order to
figure out "what is said" we have to determine what meaning is the relevant
one. This often involves narrowing or broadening the literal meaning of
a word. For example, if I say "It is well known that all doctors drink"
(this example is from Zufferey et al., chapter 3), you will probably "narrow"
the meaning of drink to mean not just drinking any liquid, but
specifically drinking alcohol (otherwise the utterance would be kind of
pointless, because of course everyone drinks liquids).
Anyway the argument here is that this sort of "lexical narrowing" is not
an implicature, because it doesn't take place at the stage of figuring
out "what is meant", but at the stage of figuring out "what is said";
see, e.g., Noveck
& Sperber (2007) or Zufferey et al. (chapter 3).