(to appear in Mind, 2002)
wilson and dan sperber
paper questions the widespread view that verbal communication is governed by a
maxim, norm or convention of truthfulness which applies at the level of what is
literally meant, or what is said. Pragmatic frameworks based on this view must
explain the frequent occurrence and acceptability of loose and figurative uses
of language. We argue against existing explanations of these phenomena and
provide an alternative account, based on the assumption that verbal
communication is governed not by expectations of truthfulness but by
expectations of relevance, raised by literal, loose and figurative uses alike.
Sample analyses are provided, and some consequences of this alternative account
are explored. In particular, we argue that the notions of ‘literal meaning’
and ‘what is said’ play no useful theoretical role in the study of language
use, and that the nature of explicit communication will have to be rethought.
Here are a couple of apparent platitudes. As speakers, we expect what we say to be accepted as true. As hearers, we expect what is said to us to be true. If it were not for these expectations, if they were not often enough satisfied, there would be little point in communicating at all. David Lewis (who has proposed a convention of truthfulness) and Paul Grice (who has argued for maxims of truthfulness), among others, have explored some of the consequences of these apparent platitudes. We want to take a different line and argue that they are strictly speaking false. Of course hearers expect to be informed and not misled by what is communicated; but what is communicated is not the same as what is said. We will argue that language use is not governed by any convention or maxim of truthfulness in what is said. Whatever genuine facts such a convention or maxim was supposed to explain are better explained by assuming that communication is governed by a principle of relevance.
to David Lewis (1975), there is a regularity (and a moral obligation) of
truthfulness in linguistic behaviour. This is not a convention in Lewis's sense,
since there is no alternative regularity which would be preferable as long as
everyone conformed to it. However, for any language £ of a population P,
Lewis argues that there is a convention of truthfulness
and trust in £ (an alternative being a convention of truthfulness and trust
in some other language £'):
My proposal is that the convention whereby a population P uses a language £ is a convention of truthfulness and trust in £. To be truthful in £ is to act in a certain way: to try never to utter any sentences of £ that are not true in £. Thus it is to avoid uttering any sentence of £ unless one believes it to be true in £. To be trusting in £ is to form beliefs in a certain way: to impute truthfulness in £ to others, and thus to tend to respond to another's utterance of any sentence of £ by coming to believe that the uttered sentence is true in £. (Lewis 1975, p. 167)
Lewis considers the objection that truthfulness might not be the only factor which needs to be taken into account, and replies as follows:
Communication cannot be explained by conventions of truthfulness alone. If I
utter a sentence s
of our language £, you—expecting me to be truthful in £—will conclude that
I take s
to be true in £. If you think I am well informed, you will also conclude that
is true in £. But you will draw other conclusions as well, based on your
legitimate assumption that it is for some good reason that I chose to utter s
rather than remain silent, and rather than utter any of the other sentences of
£ that I also take to be true in £. I can communicate all sorts of
misinformation by exploiting your beliefs about my conversational purposes,
without ever being untruthful in £. Communication depends on principles of
helpfulness and relevance as well as truthfulness.
All this does not conflict with anything I have said. We do conform to
conversational regularities of helpfulness and relevance. But these regularities
are not independent conventions of language; they result from our convention of
truthfulness and trust in £ together with certain general facts—not dependent
on any convention—about our conversational purposes and our beliefs about one
another. Since they are by-products of a convention of truthfulness and trust,
it is unnecessary to mention them separately in specifying the conditions under
which a language is used by a population. (Lewis 1975, p. 185)
Lewis does not explain how regularities of relevance might be by-products of a
convention of truthfulness. One of our aims will be to show that, on the
contrary, expectations of truthfulness—to the extent that they exist—are a
by-product of expectations of relevance.
Grice (1967), in his William James Lectures, sketched a theory of utterance
interpretation based on a Co-operative Principle and maxims of truthfulness,
informativeness, relevance and clarity (Quality, Quantity, Relation and Manner).
The Quality maxims went as follows:
Grice's maxims of Quality
to make your contribution one that is true.
Do not say what you believe to be false. [maxim
Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
supermaxim of Quality is concerned with the speaker's overall contribution (what
is communicated, either explicitly or implicitly), while the first and second
maxims of Quality relate only to what is said (the proposition explicitly
expressed or asserted). Grice saw the first maxim of Quality, which we will call
the maxim of truthfulness, as the most important of all the maxims. He says in
the William James Lectures:
It is obvious that the observance of some of these maxims is a matter of less urgency than is the observance of others; a man who has expressed himself with undue prolixity would, in general, be open to milder comment than would a man who has said something he believes to be false. Indeed, it might be felt that the importance of at least the first maxim of Quality is such that it should not be included in a scheme of the kind I am constructing; other maxims come into operation only on the assumption that this maxim of Quality is satisfied. While this may be correct, so far as the generation of implicatures is concerned, it seems to play a role not totally different from the other maxims, and it will be convenient, for the present at least, to treat it as a member of the list of maxims. (Grice 1967, p. 27)
his ‘Retrospective Epilogue’, written 20 years later, this view is
maxim of Quality, enjoining the provision of contributions which are genuine
rather than spurious (truthful rather than mendacious), does not seem to be just
one among a number of recipes for producing contributions; it seems rather to
spell out the difference between something's being and (strictly speaking)
failing to be, any kind of contribution at all. False information is not an
inferior kind of information; it just is not information. (Grice 1989a, p. 371)
though, an interesting shift. While he talks of ‘the maxim of Quality,’
Grice's concern here is with the speaker's contribution as a whole; indeed,
there is room for doubt about whether he had the first maxim of Quality or the
supermaxim in mind. We believe that this is not a minor detail. One of our aims
is to show that the function Grice attributes to the Quality maxims—ensuring
the quality of the speaker's overall contribution—can be more effectively
achieved in a framework with no maxim of truthfulness at all.
is a range of apparent counterexamples to the claim that speakers try to tell
the truth. These include lies, jokes, fictions, metaphors and ironies. Lewis and
Grice are well aware of these cases, and discuss them in some detail. Grice
(1967, p. 30), for instance, notes that his maxims may be violated, and lists
several categories of violation, each with its characteristic effects. Lies are
examples of covert violation, where the hearer is meant to assume that the maxim
of truthfulness is still in force and that the speaker believes what she has
said. Jokes and fictions might be seen as cases in which the maxim of
truthfulness is overtly suspended (the
speaker overtly opts out of it); the
hearer is meant to notice that it is no longer operative, and is not expected to
assume that the speaker believes what she has said. Metaphor, irony and other
tropes represent a third category: they are overt violations (floutings)
of the maxim of truthfulness, in which the hearer is meant to assume that the
maxim of truthfulness is no longer operative, but that the supermaxim of Quality
remains in force, so that some true proposition is still conveyed.
will grant that a reasonable—if not optimal—treatment of lies, jokes and
fictions might be developed along these lines. Tropes, and more generally loose
uses of language (e.g. approximations, sense extensions), present a much more
pressing challenge. After all, many, if not most, of our serious declarative
utterances are not strictly and literally true, either because they are
figurative, or simply because we express ourselves loosely.
utterance can be said to have a literal meaning which is capable of being either
true or false when the result of combining its linguistic sense with its
reference is a proposition. We ourselves do not claim that all utterances have a
literal meaning, and we will be arguing that even when a literal meaning is
available, it is not automatically the preferred interpretation of an utterance.
In fact, literalness plays no role in our account of language comprehension, and
nor does the notion of what is said.
By contrast, to those who argue that there is an expectation of truthfulness in
what is said, literal meanings matter. For Grice, what is said (as distinct from
what is implicated) is the literal meaning of an utterance. For Lewis, what is
said is specifiable on the basis of the utterance’s literal meaning. Without
such an appeal to literal meaning in the determination of what is said, the
claim that there is a maxim or convention of truthfulness in what is said would
be, if not vacuous, at least utterly vague.
Lewis (1975) considers the case of tropes:
Suppose the members of a population are untruthful in their language £ more
often than not, not because they lie, but because they go in heavily for irony,
metaphor, hyperbole, and such. It is hard to deny that the language £ is used
by such a population.
I claim that these people are truthful in their language £, though they are not
literally truthful in £. To be
literally truthful in £ is to be truthful in another language related to £, a
language we can call literal-£. The relation between £ and literal-£ is as
follows: a good way to describe £ is to start by specifying literal-£ and then
to describe £ as obtained by certain systematic departures from literal-£.
This two-stage specification of £ by way of literal-£ may turn out to be much
simpler than any direct specification of £. (Lewis 1975, p. 183)
reply rests on a widely-shared view which dates back to classical rhetoric. On
(a) Figurative and literal utterances differ not in the kind of meanings they
have (thus, if literal meanings are truth-conditional, so are figurative
meanings), but in the way these meanings are generated.
The meanings of figurative utterances are generated by systematic departures
from their literal meanings.
example, consider (3) and (4), where (3) is a metaphor and (4) is intended as
(3) The leaves danced in the breeze.
You’re a genius.
might want to say that in literal-English, sentences (3) and (4) have just their
literal meanings. In actual English, the language in which a convention of
truthfulness and trust holds among English speakers, (3) and (4) are ambiguous.
They have their literal meanings plus other, figurative meanings: thus, (3) has
the metaphorical meaning in (5), and (4) the hyperbolical meaning in (6):
The leaves moved in the breeze as if they were dancing.
You’re very clever.
it is not as if any language £ (in the sense required by Lewis, where the
sentences of £ can be assigned truth-conditional meanings) had ever actually
been specified on the basis of a corresponding ‘literal-£’. So what is the
justification for accepting something like (2a) and (2b)? How are figurative
meanings derived from literal meanings, and under what conditions do the
derivations take place? Lewis does not explain, and there are no generally
accepted answers to these questions. We have argued (Sperber and Wilson 1986a,b;
1990; 1998a) that figurative interpretations are radically context-dependent,
and that the context is not fixed independently of the utterance but constructed
as an integral part of the comprehension process. If so, then the very idea of
generating the sentences of a language £ on the basis of a corresponding
‘literal-£’ is misguided.
is often seen as providing an explanation of how figurative interpretations are
conveyed. Consider a situation where the speaker of (3) or (4) manifestly could
not have intended to commit herself to the truth of the propositions literally
expressed: it is common knowledge that she knows that leaves never dance, or
that she does not regard the hearer as a genius. She is therefore overtly
violating the maxim of truthfulness: in Grice's terms, she is flouting
it. Flouting a maxim indicates a speaker's intention: the speaker intends the
hearer to retrieve an implicature which brings the full interpretation of the
utterance (i.e. what is said plus what is implicated) as close as possible to
satisfying the Co-operative Principle and maxims. In the case of tropes, the
required implicature is related to what is said in one of several possible ways,
each characteristic of a different trope. With metaphor, the implicature is a
simile based on what is said; with irony, it is the opposite of what is said;
with hyperbole, it is a weaker proposition, and with understatement, a stronger
one. Thus, Grice might analyse (3) as implicating (5) above, and (4) as
Note that this treatment of tropes does not differ radically from Lewis’s, or from the classical rhetorical account. Grice's approach, like Lewis's, is based on assumption (2a) and, more importantly, on assumption (2b) (that the meanings of figurative utterances are generated by systematic departures from their literal meanings). The only difference is that Lewis sees these departures as systematic enough to be analysed in code-like terms: the figurative meaning of a sentence is a genuine linguistic meaning specified in the grammar of £ by a derivation which takes the literal meaning of the sentence as input. The sentences of £ (unlike those of literal-£) are systematically ambiguous between literal and figurative senses. For Grice, by contrast, sentences have only literal meanings. Figurative meanings are not sentence meanings but utterance meanings, derived in a conversational context. However, the derivations proposed in Grice’s pragmatic approach to tropes are the same as those hinted at by Lewis in his linguistic approach, and neither differs seriously from the classical rhetorical account.
treatment of tropes leaves several questions unanswered, and we will argue that
it is inconsistent with the rationale of his own enterprise. In particular,
there is room for doubt about what he meant by the maxim of truthfulness, and
the role it was intended to play in his framework. This doubt is created by two
possible interpretations of his notion of saying.
On the first interpretation, saying is
merely expressing a proposition, without any necessary commitment to its truth.
Understood in this way, the maxim of truthfulness means ‘Do not express
propositions you believe to be false.’ The function of this maxim, and more
generally of the Quality maxims, would be to account for the fact—to the
extent that it is a fact—that a speaker actually commits herself to the truth
of what she says. Tropes would then be explained by the claim that flouting the
maxim triggers the recovery of an implicature in the standard Gricean way.
However, there is a problem. In general, the recovery of implicatures is meant
to restore the assumption that the maxims have been observed, or that their
violation was justified in the circumstances (as when a speaker is justified by
her ignorance in providing less information than required) (Grice 1989a, p.
370). In the case of tropes, the maxim of truthfulness is irretrievably violated,
and the implicature provides no circumstantial justification whatsoever.
the second, and stronger, interpretation, saying is not merely expressing a
proposition but asserting it: that is, committing oneself to its truth.
Understood in this way, the maxim of truthfulness means ‘Do not assert
propositions you believe to be false.’ On this interpretation, saying already
involves speaker commitment, and the function of the maxim of truthfulness, and
more generally of the Quality maxims, would be to ensure that speakers do not
make spurious commitments. This seems to fit with Grice's above remark that the
function of the Quality maxim is to guarantee that contributions are genuine
rather than spurious. However, understood in this way, it is hard to see why a
maxim of truthfulness is needed at all. It seems to follow from the very notion
of an assertion as a commitment to truth (perhaps together with a proper
understanding of commitment) that your assertions should be truthful. In fact,
the only pragmatic function of the maxim of truthfulness, on this interpretation,
is to be violated in metaphor and irony, thus triggering the search for an
implicature. Without it, Grice would have no account of figurative utterances at
notion of saying did Grice have in mind in proposing the maxim of truthfulness?
There is evidence of some hesitation. On the one hand, he treats the tropes as
‘Examples in which the first maxim of Quality is flouted’ (Grice 1967, p.
34). On the other, he comments that in irony the speaker ‘has said or
has made as if to say’ [our italics]
something she does not believe, and that in metaphor what is communicated must
be obviously related to what the speaker ‘has
made as if to say’ (ibid. p. 34). If the speaker of metaphor or irony
merely ‘makes as if to say’ something, then the stronger notion of saying
must be in force; on the other hand, if the speaker of a trope merely ‘makes
as if’ to say something, then surely the maxim of truthfulness is not violated.
But if the maxim of truthfulness is not violated, how does Grice's analysis of
metaphor and irony go through at all?
in his philosophy of language, where the notion of saying plays a central role,
it was the stronger rather than the weaker notion that interested Grice. He says,
for example, ‘I want to say that (1) “U
(utterer) said that p” entails (2)
“U did something x by which U
meant that p”.’ (Grice 1967, p.
87). For Grice, what is meant is
roughly co-extensive with what is intentionally
communicated: that is, with the information put forward as true. On this
interpretation, saying involves speaker commitment: that is, it means asserting.
Among his commentators, Stephen Neale (1992) treats these broader considerations
as decisive: ‘If U utters the
sentence “Bill is an honest man” ironically, on Grice's account U
will not have said that Bill is an honest man: U will have made as if to say that Bill is an honest man.’ (Neale
1992, section 2).
can we reconcile these two claims: that metaphor and irony are deliberate
violations of the maxim of truthfulness, and hence must say
something, and that in metaphor and irony the speaker merely makes
as if to say something? A possible answer would be to distinguish two phases
in the utterance interpretation process. In the first, the utterance of a
declarative sentence would provide prima facie evidence for the assumption that
an assertion is being made. In the second, this assumption would be evaluated
and accepted or rejected. In the case of metaphor and irony, this second phase
would involve an argument of the following sort: if it is common ground that the
utterer U doesn't believe p,
then U cannot assert p; it is
common ground that U doesn't believe p;
hence, U hasn't asserted p. In
this way, we get a consistent interpretation of the notion of saying, and we can
see why Grice hesitates between ‘saying’ and ‘making as if to say.’
if this interpretation is correct, then a trope involves no real violation of
the maxim of truthfulness at any stage: since the speaker was not saying p,
she was not saying what she believed to be false. A flouting, so understood, is
a mere appearance of violation. So why should it be necessary to retrieve an
implicature in order to preserve the assumption that the maxims have been
respected? The Gricean way to go (although Grice himself did not take this
route) would be to argue that it is not the maxim of truthfulness but some other
maxim that is being violated. Quite plausibly, the maxim of Relation (‘Be
relevant’) is being violated, for how can you be relevant when you speak and
say nothing? Surely the first maxim of Quantity (‘Make your contribution as
informative as is required’) is being violated, for if nothing is said, no
information is provided. The implicature should thus be seen as a way of
providing a full interpretation of the utterance in which these maxims are
problem with this analysis of tropes (and with the alternative analysis on which
floutings of the maxim of truthfulness are genuine violations) is that it leads
to an interpretation of figurative utterances which irretrievably violates the
Manner maxims. In classical rhetoric, a metaphor such as (3) or a hyperbole such
as (4) is merely an indirect and decorative way of communicating the
propositions in (5) or (6). This ornamental value might be seen as explaining
the use of tropes, insofar as classical rhetoricians were interested in
explanation at all. Quite sensibly, Grice does not appeal to ornamental value.
His supermaxim of Manner is not ‘Be fancy’ but ‘Be perspicuous.’ He
assumes, this time in accordance with classical rhetoric, that figurative
meanings, like literal meanings, are fully propositional, and always
paraphrasable by means of a literal utterance. Which raises the following
question: isn't a direct and literal expression of what you mean always
more perspicuous (and in particular
less obscure and less ambiguous, cf. the first and second Manner maxims) than an
indirect figurative expression? (Remember: you cannot appeal to the subtle extra
effects of tropes, since they are not considered, let alone explained, within
the Gricean framework.)
would be presumptuous to attribute Grice's apparent hesitation between two
senses of saying to a lack of
conceptual rigour on his part. We see it rather as arising from the difficulty
of deploying a notion of saying which is both close enough to common usage to justify the
choice of this word, and yet precise enough to make a contribution to a theory
of language use. We will argue in §7 that there is no such notion. We ourselves
do not use ‘saying’ as a theoretical term, except in rendering the views of
are the most striking examples of serious utterances where the speaker is
manifestly not telling the strict and literal truth. Even more common are loose
uses of language (e.g. rough approximations, sense extensions), where an
expression is applied to items that fall outside its linguistically-determined
denotation, strictly understood. Consider the examples in (7)–(10):
lecture starts at
Sue: I must run to the bank before
Jane: I have a terrible cold. I need a
the italicised expressions in (7)–(10) are understood in the most restrictive
way (and ignoring issues of ambiguity or polysemy for a moment), these
utterances are not strictly and literally true: lectures rarely start at exactly
the appointed time, Holland is not a plane surface, Sue must hurry to the bank
but not necessarily run there, and other brands of disposable tissue would do
just as well for Jane. Such loose uses of language are very common. Some are
tied to a particular situation, produced once and then forgotten. Others may be
regular and frequent enough to give rise to an extra sense, which may stabilise
in an individual or a population: lexical broadening (along with lexical
narrowing and metaphorical transfer) has been seen as one of the main pragmatic
factors driving semantic change (Lyons 1977, Chs.13.4, 14.5). What concerns us
here is not so much the outcome of these historical macro-processes as the
nature of the pragmatic micro-processes that underlie them, and we will largely
abstract away from the question of whether, or when, a word such as ‘flat’,
or ‘run’, or ‘Kleenex’ may be said to have acquired an extra stable
sense (see Sperber and Wilson 1998a for some discussion).
How should loose uses such as those in (7)–(10) be analysed? Are they lapses, the result of sloppy speech or thought, accepted by hearers whose expectations have been reduced to realistic levels by repeated encounters with normal human failings? Is it reasonable to assume that there really is a convention or maxim of truthfulness, although speakers quite commonly fall short of strictly obeying it? As hearers, would we always—and as speakers, should we always—prefer the strictly true statements in (11)–(14) to the loose uses in (7)–(10)?
The lecture starts at or shortly after five.
I must go to the bank as fast as if I were running.
I need a Kleenex or other disposable tissue.
Clearly not. In most circumstances, the
hearer would not be misled by strictly untrue approximations such as (7)–(10),
and their strictly true counterparts in (11)–(14) would not provide him with
any more valuable information. Indeed, since these strictly true counterparts
are typically longer, the shorter approximations may be preferable.
uses of language present few problems for speakers and hearers, who are rarely
even aware of their occurrence; but they do raise a serious issue for any
philosophy of language based on a maxim or convention of truthfulness. We have
suggested above that appeals to ambiguity (or polysemy) merely defer the problem,
since such ambiguities ultimately derive from repeated instances of loose use
(for further discussion, see §6 below). In this section, we will consider other
solutions proposed in the literature, paying particular attention to Lewis’s
treatment of pragmatic vagueness. We will argue that no single solution, nor any
combination of proposed solutions, is adequate to handle the full variety of
loose uses of language, which go well beyond the types of pragmatic vagueness
dealt with on Lewis’s account.
Grice’s framework, loose uses such as (7)–(10) apparently violate either the
maxim of truthfulness or the second maxim of Quality (‘Have adequate evidence
for what you say’). However, they do not really fit into any of the categories
of violation listed in §1 above. They are not covert violations, designed to
deceive the hearer into believing the proposition strictly and literally
expressed. They are not like jokes or fictions, which suspend the maxims
entirely. One might try to analyse them as floutings: overt violations (real or
apparent), designed to trigger the search for a related implicature (here a
hedged version of what was literally said or quasi-said); but the problem is
that loose uses are not generally perceived as violating the Quality maxims at
all. In classical rhetoric, they were not treated as tropes involving the
substitution of a figurative for a literal meaning. They do not have the
striking quality that Grice associated with floutings, which he saw as resulting
in figurative or quasi-figurative interpretations. Loose talk involves no overt
violation, real or apparent; or at least it does not involve a degree of
overtness in real or apparent violation which might trigger the search for an
implicature. While we are all capable of realising on reflection that utterances
such as (7)–(10) are not strictly and literally true, these departures from
truthfulness pass unattended and undetected in the normal flow of discourse.
Grice's framework thus leaves them unexplained.
we should reconsider the apparent platitudes we started with. Maybe we should
have said that as speakers, we expect what we say to be accepted as approximately
true, and as hearers, we expect what is said to us to be approximately true. But this is far too vague to do the required
work of explaining how speakers and hearers manage to communicate successfully.
Approximations differ both in kind and in degree, and their acceptability varies
with content and context. There is no single scale on which the degrees of
approximation in disparate statements such as (7)–(10) can be usefully
compared. The same statement can be an acceptable approximation in one situation
and not in another. Thus, suppose the speaker of (7) expects the lecture to
start sometime between
and 5.10: then (7) would be an acceptable approximation to a student who has
just asked whether the lecture starts at five or
but not to a radio technician preparing to broadcast the lecture live. Moreover,
as we will argue below, there are cases where the notion of ‘degrees of
approximation’ does not really apply.
convention of truthfulness and trust in a language (if there were one) might
play a valuable role in explaining how linguistic expressions acquire their
conventional meanings, and how speakers and hearers use these meanings to
communicate successfully. If all that speakers and hearers are entitled to are
vague expectations of approximate truth, it is hard to see how the resulting
convention of approximate truthfulness could be robust enough to establish
common meanings. As we have shown, the same approximation may be differently
intended and understood in different circumstances. Unless it is supplemented by
some account of how speakers and hearers may converge on these more specific
understandings—an account which might then be doing most of the explanatory
work—a convention of approximate truthfulness and trust is inadequate to
explain how the co-ordination necessary for successful communication is achieved.
Still, this is the direction that David Lewis proposes to explore. He writes:
is a sentence true enough? […] this itself is a vague matter. More important
for our present purposes, it is something that depends on context. What is true
enough on one occasion is not true enough on another. The standards of precision
in force are different from one conversation to another, and may change in the
course of a single conversation.
We agree with Lewis (and Unger 1975, Ch.2)
that ‘hexagonal’ and ‘flat’ are semantically absolute terms, and that
their vagueness should be seen as pragmatic rather than semantic (so in our
terms they are genuine cases of loose use). However, Lewis’s analysis of
pragmatically vague terms such as ‘flat’ is very similar to his analysis of
semantically vague terms such as ‘cool’.
For Lewis, a semantically vague term has a range of possible sharp delineations,
marking different cut-off points between, say, ‘cool’ and ‘warm’.
‘This is cool’ may be true at some but not all delineations, and depending
on our purposes, we may be willing or unwilling to assert it: hence its
vagueness (1970, pp. 228–29). On Lewis’s account, semantically absolute but
pragmatically vague terms are handled on similar lines, except that semantic
delineations are replaced by contextually-determined standards of precision (so
if ‘flat’ were semantically rather than pragmatically vague, the analysis
would not be very different). On this approach, ‘
Semantic vagueness clearly exists
(‘bluish’ and ‘flattish’ are good examples); its analysis raises
problems of its own, about which we have nothing to say here (see Williamson
1994; Keefe and Smith 1996). What we do want to argue against is the idea that
loose use can be successfully treated as a pragmatic analogue of semantic
vagueness. As we have suggested above (and will argue in more detail below),
there are many varieties of loose use, not all of which can be satisfactorily
handled by appeal to contextually-determined standards of precision. For the
cases that cannot be handled on Lewis’s lines, an alternative analysis must be
found. We will propose such an analysis, and argue that it generalises
straightforwardly to all varieties of loose use (and indeed to all utterances,
literal, loose, or figurative), making the appeal to standards of precision as a
component of conversational competence unnecessary.
In fact, there are problems even in some cases
where the appeal to contextually-determined standards of precision looks
initially plausible. Consider a situation where (7) (‘The
lecture starts at
would be accepted as true enough if the lecture started somewhere between
5.10. On Lewis’s account, it might be claimed that here the
contextually-determined standard of precision allows for a give or take of, say,
fifteen minutes around the stated time. It should then follow that a hearer in
the same situation, with the same standard of precision in force, would be
equally willing to accept (7) as true enough if the lecture started somewhere
between 4.50 and
But there is an obvious asymmetry between the two cases. Intuitively, the reason
is clear enough: the audience won't mind or feel misled if they get to the
lecture a few minutes early, but they will if they get there a few minutes late,
so the loosening is acceptable only in one direction. In a different
situation—when the speaker is talking about the end of the lecture rather than
the beginning, for example—there may be an asymmetry in the other direction.
Again, the reason is intuitively clear: the audience won't mind or feel misled
if they can get away a bit earlier than expected, but they will if they have to
stay longer. It is hard to explain these obvious intuitions by appeal to the
regular notion of contextually-determined standards of precision as described
above. One might, of course, try building the asymmetries into the standards of
precision themselves, but then two different standards would have to be invoked
to explain how (15) is quite naturally understood to mean something like (16):
(15) The lecture starts at
and ends at
(16) The lecture starts at
or shortly after and ends at
is clearly ad hoc. It would be better to find an alternative account of these
asymmetries—but such an account might make the appeal to
contextually-determined standards of precision redundant.
more serious problem for Lewis is that in some cases of loose use, the appeal to
contextually-determined standards of precision does not seem to work at all.
Lewis’s account works best when there is a continuum (or ordered series) of
cases between the strict truth and the broadest possible approximation.
‘Flat’ is a good example, since departures from strict flatness may vary in
also works well in this respect, since departures from exactness may vary in
degree. But with ‘run’ in (9) (‘I must run to the bank’) and
‘Kleenex’ in (10) (‘I need a Kleenex’), no such continuum exists. There
is a sharp discontinuity between running (where both feet leave the ground at
each step) and walking (where there is always at least one foot on the ground).
Typically (though not necessarily), running is faster than walking, so that
‘run’ may be loosely used, as in (9), to indicate the activity of going on
foot (whether walking or running) at a speed more typical of running. But
walking at different speeds is not equivalent to running relative to different
standards of precision. Similarly, ‘Kleenex’ is a brand name: other brands
of disposable tissue are not Kleenex. The word ‘Kleenex’ may be loosely
used, as in (10), to indicate a range of tissues similar to Kleenex. But there
is no continuum on which being similar enough to Kleenex amounts to actually
being Kleenex relative to stricter or looser standards of precision. ‘Run’,
‘Kleenex’ and many other words have sharp conceptual boundaries and no
ordered series of successively broader extensions which might be picked out by
raising or lowering some standard of precision. Yet these terms are often
loosely used. This supports our claim that looseness is a broader notion than
for someone with no particular theoretical axe to grind, it is easy enough to
see intuitively what is going on. Suppose
you have a lecture one afternoon, but don’t know exactly when it is due to
start. Someone tells you, ‘The lecture starts at
From the literal content of the utterance, together with other premises drawn
from background knowledge, you can derive a number of conclusions that matter to
you: that you will not be free to do other things between five and seven
o’clock, that you should leave the library no later than 4.45, that it will be
too late to go shopping after the lecture, and so on. To say that these
conclusions matter to you is to say that you can use them to derive still
further non-trivial contextual implications, of a practical or a theoretical
nature. These initial conclusions are the main branches of a derivational tree
with many further branches and sub-branches. You would have been able to derive
all these direct and indirect conclusions from the strictly true utterance
‘The lecture starts at or shortly after
but at the extra cost required to process a longer sentence and a more complex
meaning. There are other conclusions¾false
ones this time¾that
you would have been able to derive from the approximation, ‘The lecture starts
but not from its strictly true counterpart: that the lecture will have begun by
5.01, for instance. But you are unlikely to derive them. They don't matter,
because they are derivational bare branches which yield no further non-trivial
that Peter and Mary, who are both rather unfit, are discussing where to go on
their next cycling holiday. Mary suggests
that Sue, chatting with friends in the street, looks at her watch and says, ‘I
must run to the bank before it closes.’ Her friends will take her to mean that
she must break off their chat and hurry to the bank. For them, that much
information is worth deriving. Whether she will actually get to the bank by
running, walking fast or a mixture of both is of no interest to them, and they
will simply not attend to this aspect of the literal meaning of her utterance.
that Jane and Jack are in the cinema waiting for the film to start. By saying,
‘I have a terrible cold. I need a Kleenex,’ Jane provides a premise from
which Jack can infer that she wants to borrow a tissue to use in dealing with
her cold. Her utterance also provides a premise from which he could derive the
possibly false conclusion that she does not want a tissue of any other brand
than Kleenex; but he is unlikely to draw such a conclusion, since his
expectations of relevance in this context are satisfied by the weaker
interpretation on which she wants a tissue (and in a context where his
expectations of relevance would encourage an interpretation on which Jane was
specifically requesting a Kleenex—e.g. if she was angrily throwing away
tissues of another brand—the utterance would not be understood as a case of
these examples show, hearers have no objection to strictly false approximations
as long as the conclusions they bother to derive from them are true. In fact,
they might prefer the shorter approximations to their longer-winded but strictly
true counterparts for reasons of economy of effort. There
is some evidence that speakers take account of the perceived preferences of
their audience in deciding how strictly or loosely to speak. In a series of
experiments on truthfulness and relevance in telling the time, Van der Henst,
Carles and Sperber (forthcoming) showed that when people in public places are
asked the time by a stranger, they tend to respond with a time that is either
accurate to the minute or rounded to the nearest multiple of five, depending on
how useful in the circumstances they think a more accurate answer would be. This
includes people with digital watches, from which a time that is accurate to the
minute is most easily read off. These people have to make an extra effort to
produce a rounded answer which, to the best of their knowledge, is not strictly
true, but is easier for their audience to process.
the arguments of the next section, let us say that an utterance is relevant
when the hearer, given his cognitive dispositions and the context, is likely to
derive some genuine knowledge from it (we will shortly elaborate on this).
Someone interested in defending a maxim or convention of truthfulness might then
suggest that expectations of relevance do play a role in comprehension, but in a
strictly limited way. It might be claimed, for example, that while utterances in
general create expectations of truthfulness, approximations alone create
expectations of relevance, which have a role to play in the case of loose talk,
but only there. This account (apart from being unparsimonious) raises the
following problem. As noted above, while we are all capable of realising on
reflection that an utterance was an approximation rather than a strictly literal
truth, the fact that an approximation has been used is simply not noticed in the
normal flow of discourse, and is surely not recognisable in advance of the
in that case, how could loose talk and literal talk be approached and processed
with different expectations?
Here is the answer. It is not just approximations but all utterances¾literal, loose or figurative¾that are approached with expectations of relevance rather than truthfulness. Sometimes, the only way of satisfying these expectations is to understand the utterance as literally true. But just as an utterance can be understood as an approximation without being recognised and categorised as such, so it can be literally understood without being recognised and categorised as such. We will argue that the same is true of tropes. Literal, loose, and figurative interpretations are arrived at in the same way, by constructing an interpretation which satisfies the hearer’s expectations of relevance (for earlier arguments along these lines, see Sperber and Wilson 1986a,b; 1990; 1998a).
No special machinery is needed to explain the interpretation of loose talk. In particular, contextually-determined standards of precision play no role in the interpretation process. They do not help with cases such as ‘run’, or ‘Kleenex’, which are neither semantically nor pragmatically vague; and to appeal to them in analysing cases such as ‘flat’ or ‘at five o’clock’, which might be seen as involving a pragmatic form of vagueness, would be superfluous at best.
Grice's maxim of truthfulness was part of what might be called an inferential model of human communication. This contrasts with a more classical code model, which treats utterances as signals encoding the messages that speakers intend to convey. On the classical view, comprehension is achieved by decoding signals to obtain the associated messages. On the inferential view, utterances are not signals but pieces of evidence about the speaker's meaning, and comprehension is achieved by inferring this meaning from the evidence provided. An utterance is, of course, a linguistically coded piece of evidence, so that the comprehension process will involve an element of decoding. But the linguistically-encoded sentence meaning need not be identical to the speaker's meaning¾and we would argue that it never is¾since it is likely to be ambiguous and incomplete in ways the speaker's meaning is not. On this approach, the linguistic meaning recovered by decoding is just one of the inputs to an inferential process which yields an interpretation of the speaker's meaning.
Lewis and others who have contributed to the development of an inferential
approach to communication have tended to minimise the gap between sentence
meaning and speaker's meaning; they treat the inference from sentence meaning to
speaker’s meaning as merely a matter of assigning referents to referring
expressions, and perhaps of calculating implicatures. While the slack between
sentence meaning and speaker's explicit meaning cannot be entirely eliminated, a
framework with a maxim or convention of truthfulness has the effect of reducing
it to a minimum. But why should this be something to be a priori expected or
desired? Comprehension is a complex cognitive process. From a cognitive point of
view, how much of the work is done by inference and how much by decoding depends
on how efficient the inferential processes are. We have argued (Wilson and
Sperber 1981; 1993; forthcoming; Sperber and Wilson 1986a; 1998a) that
relevance-oriented inferential processes are efficient enough to allow for a
much greater slack between sentence meaning and speaker's meaning than is
generally assumed. Here, we summarise the theory briefly for purposes of the
characterise relevance as a property of inputs to cognitive processes which makes
them worth processing. (‘Relevance’ is used in a technical sense which is
not meant to capture any of the ordinary senses of the word.) These inputs may
be external stimuli (e.g. a smell, the sound of an utterance), or internal
representations which may undergo further processing (e.g. the recognition of a
smell, a memory, the linguistic decoding of an utterance). At each point in our
cognitive lives, there are many more potential inputs available than we can
actually process: for example, we perceive many more distal stimuli than we can
attend to, and have many more memories than we can reactivate at a single time.
Efficiency in cognition is largely a matter of allocating our processing
resources so as to maximise cognitive benefits. This involves processing inputs
that offer the best expected cost/benefit ratio at the time.
we will consider only one type of cognitive benefit: improvements in knowledge
(theoretical or practical). This is plausibly the most important type of
cognitive benefit. There may be others: improvements in memory or imagination,
for example (although it might be argued that these are benefits only because
they contribute indirectly to improvements in knowledge; better memory and
imagination lead to better non-demonstrative inference, and therefore to better
knowledge). In any case, for our present purposes, there is another important
reason for identifying cognitive benefits with improvements in knowledge.
a situation where it is clear to both participants that the hearer's goal in
listening to the speaker's utterances is not the improvement of knowledge—say,
he just wants to be amused—there is no reason why the speaker should be
expected to tell the truth. Thus, one way of challenging the maxim or convention
of truthfulness would be to start by questioning whether humans are much
interested in truth (e.g. Stich 1990). Here, we want to present a more pointed
challenge to Grice’s and Lewis’s ideas, based on the nature of human
communication rather than the goals of cognition. We will therefore grant that
one of the goals of most human communication (though certainly not the only one)
is the transmission of genuine information and the improvement of the hearer's
knowledge. We will consider only cases where hearers are interested in truth.
Our claim is that even in these cases, hearers do not expect utterances to be
processing of an input in the context of existing assumptions may improve the
individual’s knowledge not only by adding a new piece of information, but by
revising his existing assumptions, or yielding conclusions not derivable from
the new piece of knowledge alone or from existing assumptions alone. We define
an input as relevant when and only when it has such positive cognitive effects.
Relevance is also a matter of degree, and we want to characterise it not only as
a classificatory notion but also as a comparative one. There are inputs with at
least some low degree of relevance all around us, but we cannot attend to them
all. What makes an input worth attending to is not just that it is relevant, but
that it is more relevant than any alternative potential input to the same
processing resources at that time. Although relevance cannot be measured in
absolute terms, the relevance of various inputs can be compared.
our purpose, which is to characterise a property crucial to cognitive economy,
the relevance of inputs must be comparable not only in terms of benefits (i.e.
positive cognitive effects), but also in terms of costs (i.e. processing
effort). We therefore propose the following comparative notion of relevance:
Relevance of an input to an individual at
Everything else being equal, the greater the positive cognitive effects achieved
in an individual by processing an input at a given time, the greater the
relevance of the input to that individual at that time.
Everything else being equal, the smaller the processing effort expended by the
individual in achieving those effects, the greater the relevance of the input to
that individual at that time.
Here is a brief and artificial illustration. Peter wakes up feeling unwell and goes to the doctor. On the basis of her examination, she might make any of the following true statements:
You are ill.
You have flu.
You have flu or 29 is the square root of 843.
The literal content of all three
utterances would be relevant to Peter. However, (19) would be more relevant than
either (18) or (20). It would be more relevant than (18) for reasons of
cognitive effect, since it yields all the consequences derivable from (18) and
more besides. This is an application of clause (a) of the characterisation of
relevance in (17). It would be more relevant than (20) for reasons of processing
effort: although (19) and (20) yield exactly the same consequences, these
consequences are easier to derive from (19) than from (20), which requires an
additional effort of parsing and inference (in order to realise that the second
disjunct is false and the first is therefore true). This is an application of
clause (b) of the characterisation of relevance in (17).
this characterisation of relevance, it is, ceteris
paribus, in the individual’s interest to process the most relevant inputs
available. We claim that this is what people tend to do (with many failures, of
course). They tend to do it not because they realise that it is in their
interest (and they certainly do not realise it in those terms), but because they
are cognitively-endowed evolved organisms. In biological evolution, there has
been constant pressure on the human cognitive system to organise itself so as to
select inputs on the basis of their expected relevance (see Sperber and Wilson
The First, or Cognitive, Principle of
human cognitive system tends towards processing the most relevant inputs
tendency described in the Cognitive Principle of Relevance is strong enough, and
manifest enough, to make our mental processes at least partially predictable to
others. We are in general fairly good at predicting which of the external
stimuli currently affecting some other individual’s nervous system she is
likely to be attending to, and which of the indefinitely many conclusions that
she might draw from it she will in fact draw. What we do, essentially, is assume
that she will pay attention to the potentially most relevant stimulus, and
process it so as to maximise its relevance: that is, in a context of easily
accessible background assumptions, where the information it provides will carry
relatively rich cognitive effects.
mutual predictability is exploited in communication. As communicators, we
provide stimuli which are likely to strike our intended audience as relevant
enough to be worth processing, and to be interpreted in the intended way. A
communicator produces a stimulus¾say
attracts her audience's attention, and she does so in an overtly intentional
way. In other words, she makes it manifest that she wants her audience's
attention. Since it is also manifest that the audience will tend to pay
appropriate attention only to an utterance that seems relevant enough, it is
manifest that the communicator wants her audience to assume that the utterance
is indeed relevant enough. There is thus a minimal level of relevance that the
audience is encouraged to expect: the utterance should be relevant enough to be
worth the effort needed for comprehension.
the audience entitled to expect more relevance than this? In certain conditions,
yes. The communicator wants to be understood. An utterance is most likely to be
understood when it simplifies the hearer's task by demanding as little effort
from him as possible, and encourages him to pay it due attention by offering him
as much effect as possible. The smaller the effort, and the greater the effect,
the greater the relevance. It is therefore manifestly in the communicator's
interest for the hearer to presume that the utterance is not just relevant
enough to be worth his attention, but more relevant than this. How much more?
Here, the communicator is manifestly limited by her own abilities (to provide
appropriate information, and to present it in the most efficient way). Nor can
she be expected to go against her own preferences (e.g. against the goal she
wants to achieve in communicating, or the rules of etiquette she wishes to
follow). Still, it may be compatible with the communicator’s abilities and
preferences to go beyond the minimally necessary level of relevance. We define a
notion of optimal relevance (of an
utterance, to an audience) which takes these ideas into account, and propose a
second principle of relevance based on it:
Optimal relevance of an utterance
utterance is optimally relevant to the hearer iff:
It is relevant enough to be worth the hearer's processing effort;
It is the most relevant one compatible with the speaker's abilities and
The Second, or Communicative, Principle of
utterance conveys a presumption of its own optimal relevance.
interpreting an utterance, the hearer invariably has to go beyond the
linguistically-encoded sentence meaning. There will be ambiguities and
referential indeterminacies to resolve, and other underdeterminate aspects of
explicit content that we will look at shortly. There may be implicatures to
identify, illocutionary indeterminacies to resolve, metaphors and ironies to
interpret. All this requires an appropriate set of contextual assumptions. The
Communicative Principle of Relevance and the definition of optimal relevance
suggest a practical procedure for constructing a hypothesis about the
speaker’s meaning. The hearer should consider interpretive hypotheses
(disambiguations, reference assignments, implicatures, etc.) in order of
accessibility—that is, follow a path of least effort—and stop when he
arrives at an interpretation which satisfies the expectations of relevance
raised by the utterance itself.
makes it reasonable for the hearer to follow a path of least effort is that the
speaker is expected (within the limits of her abilities and preferences) to make
her utterance as easy as possible for the hearer to understand. Since relevance
varies inversely with effort, the very fact that an interpretive hypothesis is
easily accessible gives it an initial degree of plausibility (an epistemic
advantage specific to communicated information).
makes it reasonable for the hearer to stop at the first interpretation which
satisfies his expectations of relevance is that either this interpretation is
close enough to what the speaker meant, or she has failed to communicate her
meaning. A speaker who produced an utterance with two or more significantly
different interpretations, each yielding the expected level of cognitive effect,
would put the hearer to the gratuitous and unexpected extra effort of choosing
among them, and the resulting interpretation (if any) would not satisfy clause
(b) of the presumption of optimal relevance.
Thus, when a hearer following the path of least effort finds an interpretation
which satisfies his expectations of relevance, in the absence of contrary
evidence, this is the best possible interpretive hypothesis. Since comprehension
is a non-demonstrative inference process, this hypothesis may well be false.
Typically, this happens when the speaker expresses herself in a way that is
inconsistent with the expectations she herself has raised, so that the normal
inferential routines of comprehension fail. Failures in communication are common
enough: what is remarkable and calls for explanation is that communication works
relevance-theoretic account not only describes a psychological process but also
explains what makes this process genuinely inferential: that is, likely to yield
true conclusions (in this case, intended interpretations) from true premises (in
this case, from the fact that the speaker has produced a given utterance,
together with contextual information). On the descriptive level, it has testable
implications, some of which have been tested and confirmed by a growing body of
research in experimental pragmatics.
On the explanatory level, it claims that what makes this relevance-guided
process genuinely inferential is the fact that it typically yields a single
interpretation for a given quadruple of speaker, hearer, utterance and
situation. Given that such interpretations are predictable by the speaker, the
best utterance for a speaker to produce is the one that is likely to be
interpreted in the intended way, and the best interpretation for a hearer to
choose is the one arrived at by use of the relevance-guided procedure, which is
therefore likely to have been predicted and intended by the speaker.
Communication is a form of co-ordination, and runs into co-ordination problems
which are partly standard, and partly specific to communication.
Relevance-guided comprehension takes advantage of the communication-specific
aspects of these problems, and provides a solution which is, of course,
imperfect, but is nonetheless effective (for further discussion, see Sperber and
utterance has two immediate effects: it indicates that the speaker has something
to communicate, and it determines an order of accessibility in which
interpretive hypotheses will occur to the hearer. Here is an illustration.
drops by her neighbours, the Joneses, who have just sat down to supper:
Alan Jones: Do you want to join us for
No, thanks. I've eaten.
standard semantic analysis of the second part of Lisa’s utterance would assign
it the following truth condition:
At some point in a time span whose endpoint is the time of utterance, Lisa has
though, Lisa means something more specific than this. She means that she has
eaten that very evening, and not just anything, but a supper or something
equivalent: a few peanuts wouldn't do.
is our explanation of how Alan understands Lisa’s meaning. Her utterance
activates in his mind, via automatic linguistic decoding, a conceptual structure
which articulates in the grammatically specified way the concepts of Lisa, of
eating, and of a time span whose endpoint is the time of utterance.
He does not have to reason, because it is all routine, but he might reason along
the following lines: she has caused me a certain amount of processing effort
(the effort required to attend to her utterance and decode it). Given the
Communicative Principle of Relevance, this effort was presumably not caused in
vain. So the conceptual structure activated by her utterance must be a good
starting point for inferring her meaning, which should be relevant to me.
utterance, ‘I have eaten’, immediately follows her refusal of Alan’s
invitation to supper. It would be relevant to Alan (or so she may have thought)
to know the reasons for her refusal, which have implications for their
relationship: Did she object to the offer? Would she accept it another time? It
all depends on the reasons for her refusal. The use of the perfect ‘have
eaten’ indicates a time span ending at the time of utterance and starting at
some indefinite point in the past. Alan narrows the time span by assuming that
it started recently enough for the information that Lisa has eaten during that
period to yield adequate consequences: here, the relevant time span is that very
evening (for discussion, see Wilson and Sperber 1998). He does the same in
deciding what she ate. In the circumstances, the idea of eating is most easily
fleshed out as eating supper, and this, together with the narrowing of the time
span, yields the expected level of cognitive effect. Alan then assumes that Lisa
intended to express the proposition that she has eaten supper that evening, and
to present this as her reason for refusing his invitation. Although this
attribution of meaning is typically a conscious event, Alan is never aware of
the process by which he arrived at it, or of a literal meaning equivalent to
process by which Alan interprets Lisa’s meaning may be represented as in Table
1, with Alan’s interpretive hypotheses on the left, and his basis for arriving
at them on the right. We have presented the hypotheses in English, but for Alan
they would be in whatever is the medium of conceptual thought, and they need not
correspond very closely to our paraphrases.
Lisa has said to Alan ‘I have eaten’.
Decoding of Lisa's utterance.
Lisa's utterance is optimally relevant to Alan.
Expectation raised by the recognition of Lisa's
utterance as a communicative act, and acceptance of the presumption of
relevance it automatically conveys.
Lisa's utterance will achieve relevance by explaining her immediately
preceding refusal of Alan's invitation to supper.
Expectation raised by (b), together with the fact that
such an explanation would be most relevant to Alan at this point.
The fact that one has already eaten supper on a given evening is a good
reason for refusing an invitation to supper that evening.
First assumption to occur to Alan which, together with
other appropriate premises, might satisfy expectation (c). Accepted as an
implicit premise of Lisa's utterance.
Lisa has eaten supper this evening.
First enriched interpretation of Lisa's utterance as
decoded in (a) to occur to Alan which might combine with (d) to lead to
the satisfaction of (c). Accepted as Lisa's explicit meaning.
Lisa is refusing supper with us because she has already had supper this
Inferred from (d) and (e), satisfying (c) and accepted
as an implicit conclusion of Lisa's utterance.
Lisa might accept an invitation to supper another time.
From (f) plus background knowledge. One of several
possible weak implicatures of Lisa's utterance which, together with (f),
satisfy expectation (b).
do not see this as a sequential process, starting with (26a) and ending with
(26g). For one thing, interpretation is carried out ‘on line,’ and begins
while the utterance is still in progress. Some tentative or incomplete
interpretive hypotheses may be made and later revised or completed in the light
of their apparent consequences for the overall interpretation. We assume, then,
that interpretive hypotheses about explicit content and implicatures are
developed in parallel, and stabilise when they are mutually adjusted, and
jointly adjusted with the hearer’s expectations of relevance.
the present case, Alan assumes in (26b) that Lisa's utterance, decoded as in
(26a), is optimally relevant to him. Since what he wants to know at this point
is why she refused his invitation, he assumes in (26c) that her utterance will
achieve relevance by answering this question. In this context, Lisa's utterance,
‘I have eaten’, provides easy access to the piece of common background
knowledge in (26d)¾that
people don't normally want to eat supper twice in one evening. This could be
used as an implicit premise in deriving the expected explanation of Lisa's
refusal, as long as her utterance is interpreted on the explicit side as
conveying the information in (26e): that she has eaten supper that evening. By
combining the implicit premise in (26d) and the explicit premise in (26e), Alan
arrives at the implicit conclusion in (26f), from which further weaker
implicatures, including (26g) and others, may be derived (on the notion of a
weak implicature, see below). This overall interpretation satisfies Alan's
expectations of relevance. On this account, explicit content and implicatures
(implicit premises and conclusions) are arrived at by a process of mutual
adjustment, with hypotheses about both being considered in order of
is a certain arbitrariness about the way we have presented Alan's interpretive
hypotheses. This is partly because, as noted above, we had to put into English
thoughts which may not have been articulated in English. Another reason is that
Lisa's utterance licenses not a single interpretation but any one of a range of
interpretations with very similar import. By constructing any particular
interpretation from this range, Alan achieves comprehension enough and has no
reason to look for a better interpretation. Thus, he might take Lisa to mean
either that she has had supper that evening or, more cautiously, that, whether
or not what she has eaten can properly be described as supper, she has eaten
enough not to want supper now. He may take her to be implicating (26g), or some
conclusion similar to (26g), or nothing of the sort. In each case his
interpretation is reasonable, in the sense that Lisa’s utterance has
encouraged him to construct it.
Alan interprets Lisa as meaning that she has had supper, or as implicating
something like (26g), he has to take some of the responsibility for the
interpretation he has chosen. But this is something that hearers often do, and
that speakers intend (or at least encourage) them to do. Often, the hearer will
be unable to find an interpretation which is relevant in the expected way
without taking some of the responsibility for it: that is, without going beyond
what the speaker commits herself to acknowledging as exactly what she meant.
This is typical in loose use and creative metaphor, both of which involve the
communication of weak implicatures (implicatures which the hearer is given some
encouragement but no clear mandate to construct). Nor is this sharing of
responsibility a sign of imperfect communication: it may be just the degree of
communication that suits both speaker and hearer.
explicit meaning, as understood by Alan, logically implies the literal,
unenriched meaning of her utterance: if she has eaten supper that evening, she
has eaten tout court. Her utterance
might therefore be classified as literal, for whatever good it might do.
However, Alan does not attend to the literal meaning at any stage, and the fact
that the utterance is literal plays no role in the communication process. This
is even more obvious in the following alternative version of the dialogue:
Alan: Do you want to join us for
I'd love to. I haven't eaten.
if the literal meaning of Lisa's utterance, ‘I haven’t eaten’, is the
negation of (25) (i.e. the proposition that she has never eaten anything), then
her utterance is patently false. However, this absurd interpretation never
crosses Alan or Lisa’s mind.
way of avoiding such counterintuitive assignments of literal meaning would be to
treat the perfect ‘has eaten’ as containing a hidden linguistic constituent
denoting a contextually determinate time span. In (27), Lisa might then be seen
as referring, via this hidden constituent, to the evening of utterance, and the
fact that she has eaten plenty in her lifetime would not falsify her statement,
even literally understood. We will argue below that this move is ad hoc and
unnecessary, but let us accept it here for the sake of argument.
then, that the literal meaning of Lisa's utterance in (27) is that she has not
eaten anything that evening. Now suppose that she has in fact eaten a couple of
peanuts, so that her utterance is strictly speaking false. Although it may be
false, it is not misleading. Rather, it is a case of loose use. Alan takes Lisa
to be saying that she has not eaten supper that evening. He arrives at this
interpretation by taking the concept of eating, which has been activated in his
mind by automatic linguistic decoding, and narrowing it down to the concept of
eating supper, which yields an overall interpretation that satisfies his
expectations of relevance. The procedure is the same as for dialogue (24), but
since the narrowed concept falls within the scope of a negation, the result is a
loosening rather than a narrowing of the literal meaning.
might be argued, of course, that Lisa’s utterance contains a second hidden
linguistic constituent denoting the food she has eaten. On this interpretation,
the linguistically-determined truth-conditional meaning of ‘I have eaten’ is
equivalent not to ‘I have eaten something’, but to ‘I have eaten x’,
where the value of x (like the
referent of the pronoun ‘I’ and the time of utterance) must be specified
before the sentence token can be said to express a proposition.
other situations, what the speaker means by saying that she has or hasn’t
eaten might also involve a specification of the place of eating, some manner of
eating, and so on:
‘I've often been to their parties, but I've never eaten anything’ [there]
‘I must wash my hands: I've eaten’ [using
my hands, rather than, say, being spoon-fed]
deal with all such cases, one might postulate more and more hidden constituents,
so that every sentence would come with a host of hidden constituents, ready for
all kinds of ordinary or extraordinary pragmatic circumstances. In this way, the
very idea of loose use could be altogether avoided. We see this as a reductio
argument which goes all the way to challenging what we accepted earlier for the
sake of argument: that the use of the perfect carries with it a hidden
constituent denoting a given time span. There is no need to postulate such a
hidden constituent: the same process which explains how ‘eating’ is narrowed
down to ‘eating supper’ also explains how the time span indicated by the
perfect is narrowed down to the evening of utterance. Moreover, the postulation
of such hidden constituents is ad hoc: its role is to reduce to a minimum the
slack between sentence meaning and speaker's meaning, a slack which is
uncomfortable from certain theoretical viewpoints. However, we read the evidence
as showing that the slack actually is
considerable, and we adopt a theoretical viewpoint which might help us describe
and understand this fact.
are exploring the idea that the linguistically-encoded sentence meaning gives no
more than a schematic indication of the speaker's meaning. The hearer’s task
is to use this indication, together with background knowledge, to construct an
interpretation of the speaker’s meaning, guided by expectations of relevance
raised by the utterance itself. The conceptual resources brought to this task
include all the concepts encoded in the hearer's language, but they go well
beyond this (Sperber and Wilson 1998a). In particular, a concept may be
recognised in context as a constituent of the speaker's explicit
meaning even though there is no expression in the sentence uttered, or indeed in
the language, which has this concept as its linguistically-encoded meaning. This
happens regularly in cases of loose use.
Sue chatting to her friend Jim in the street. She looks at her watch and says:
I can’t stay. I must run to the bank.
process by which Jim interprets Sue’s utterance, ‘I must run to the bank’,
may be represented as in Table 2.
Sue has said to Jim, ‘I must run to the bank’.
of Sue’s utterance.
Sue’s utterance is optimally relevant to Jim.
raised by the recognition of Sue's utterance as a communicative act, and
acceptance of the presumption of relevance it automatically conveys.
Sue's utterance will achieve relevance by explaining why she must break
off their chat.
raised by (b), together with the fact that such an explanation would be
most relevant to Jim at this point.
Having to hurry to the bank on urgent business is a good reason for
breaking off a chat.
assumption to occur to Jim which, together with other appropriate
premises, might satisfy expectation (c). Accepted as an implicit premise
of Sue's utterance.
Sue must RUN* to the bank (where RUN* is the meaning indicated by
“run”, and is such that Sue’s having to RUN* to the bank is
relevant-as-expected in the context).
of) the first enriched interpretation of Sue's utterance as decoded in (a)
to occur to Jim which might combine with (d) to lead to the satisfaction
of (c). Interpretation accepted as Sue's explicit meaning.
Sue must break off their chat because she must hurry to the bank on urgent
from (d) and (e), satisfying (c) and accepted as an implicit conclusion of
Sue is afraid that if she stays chatting any longer, the bank may close
before she gets there.
(f) plus background knowledge. One of several possible weak implicatures
of Sue's utterance which, together with (f), satisfy expectation (b).
Jim takes to be Sue's explicit meaning may be described as in (31e):
(e) Sue must RUN* to the bank (where RUN* is the meaning indicated by ‘run’,
and is such that Sue’s having to RUN* to the bank is relevant-as-expected in
is not, of course, a proper paraphrase (let alone a proper analysis) of Sue's
meaning (as understood by Jim). The notions of a
meaning indicated by a word and of relevance-as-expected
in a context are not constituents of Sue's meaning, and Jim does not have to
use them in understanding her utterance. As it stands, (31e) is not an
interpretation but merely a description of Sue's meaning. It attributes to Sue's
utterance the property of indicating rather than encoding her meaning, and to
Sue's meaning the property of warranting the derivation of enough cognitive
effects to make her utterance worth processing for Jim. However, it goes without
saying that if Jim succeeds at all in understanding Sue’s utterance, the
outcome of the comprehension process will be not a description but an
interpretation of Sue's meaning: that is, a mental representation which, if not
identical to Sue’s meaning, has a content similar enough for this to count as
a case of successful comprehension. In particular, Jim's interpretation must
contain an unglossed version of the concept RUN*, which on our account was not
encoded but merely indicated by her use of the word ‘run’.
that a satisfactory account can be given of the nature of these concepts, and of
how hearers may grasp them (we will return to this below), an analysis along the
lines in (31) shows how a word like ‘run’, or ‘Kleenex’, which is
neither semantically nor pragmatically vague, and which (as we argued in §3
above) cannot be satisfactorily analysed by appeal to contextually-determined
standards of precision, may be loosely used and understood. As we will show, the
analysis is straightforwardly generalisable to the full range of cases,
including ‘flat’ and ‘five o’clock’, making the appeal to
contextually-determined standards of precision unnecessary.
Peter and Mary discussing their next cycling trip. Peter has just said that he
feels rather unfit. Mary replies:
We could go to
The process by which Peter interprets
Mary's utterance, ‘
Mary has said to Peter, ‘
of Mary's utterance.
Mary's utterance is optimally relevant to Peter.
raised by the recognition of Mary's utterance as a communicative act, and
acceptance of the presumption of relevance it automatically conveys.
Mary's utterance will achieve relevance by giving reasons for her proposal
to go cycling in
raised by (b), together with the fact that such reasons would be most
relevant to Peter at this point.
Cycling on relatively flatter terrain which involves little or no climbing
is less strenuous, and would be enjoyable in the circumstances.
assumption to occur to Peter which, together with other appropriate
premises, might satisfy expectation (c). Accepted as an implicit premise
of Mary's utterance.
of) the first enriched interpretation of Mary's utterance as decoded in
(a) to occur to Peter which might combine with (d) to lead to the
satisfaction of (c). Interpretation accepted as Mary's explicit meaning.
from (d) and (e). Accepted as an implicit conclusion of Mary's utterance.
from (d) and (f), satisfying (b) and (c) and accepted as an implicit
conclusion of Mary's utterance.
Peter takes to be Mary's explicit meaning may be described as in (33e):
noted above, this is not an interpretation but merely a description of Mary's
meaning. It attributes to Mary's utterance the property of indicating rather
than encoding her meaning, and to Mary’s meaning the property of warranting
the derivation of enough cognitive effects to make her utterance worth
processing for Peter. However, the outcome of the comprehension process must be
an interpretation rather than a description of Mary's meaning. In particular, it
must contain an unglossed version of the concept FLAT*, which on our account was
not encoded but merely indicated by her use of the word ‘flat’.
might this concept FLAT* be? It is not too difficult to give a rough answer. As
Mary means it, a terrain is FLAT* if travelling across it involves little or no
climbing. Being FLAT* is quite compatible with small-scale unevenness, and
indeed with being not plane but convex because of the curvature of the Earth.
However, the concept FLAT* indicated by Mary’s utterance is more specific than
this. It has to do with cycling when rather unfit, which determines what will
count as cases of climbing. On another occasion, when travelling by car and
hoping to see mountain scenery, Mary might describe the south of
How does Peter grasp the concept FLAT* indicated by Mary’s utterance? We claim that, in appropriate circumstances, the relevance-theoretic comprehension procedure should automatically guide the hearer to an acceptably close version of the concept conveyed. As noted above, the hearer’s expectations of relevance warrant the assumption that the speaker’s explicit meaning will contextually imply a range of specific consequences (made easily accessible, though not yet implied, by the linguistically-encoded sentence meaning). Having identified these consequences, he may then, by a process of backwards inference, enrich his interpretation of the speaker’s explicit meaning to a point where it does carry these implications.
implications which Mary expects Peter to derive need not be individually
represented and jointly listed in her mind. In normal circumstances, they would
not be. She might merely expect him to derive some implications which provide
reasons for going cycling in Holland, and are similar in tenor to those she
herself has in mind (again without necessarily having a distinct awareness of
each and every one of them). To the extent that her expectations about the
implications Peter will derive are indeterminate, the same will go for the
concept she intends him to arrive at by backwards inference from these
implications. Notice that a difference in implications need not lead to a
difference in concepts: from a somewhat different set of implications than the
one envisaged by Mary, Peter may in fact arrive at the same concept FLAT* that
she had in mind (i.e. a mental representation which picks out the same
property). Suppose, however, that Peter constructs some concept FLAT** which
differs slightly from FLAT*, but has roughly the same import in the situation.
This would not be a case of imperfect communication or insufficient
understanding. As noted above, it is quite normal for communicators to aim at
such a relatively loose fit between speaker’s meaning and hearer’s
have described Mary's remark that
again the case of Peter and Mary discussing their next cycling trip. Peter has
just said that he feels rather unfit. In this version, Mary replies:
We could go to
is clearly a metaphorical use of ‘picnic’. The process by which Peter
interprets Mary’s utterance may be represented as in Table 4.
Mary has said to Peter, ‘
of Mary's utterance.
Mary's utterance is optimally relevant to Peter.
raised by the recognition of Mary's utterance as a communicative act, and
acceptance of the presumption of relevance it automatically conveys.
Mary's utterance will achieve relevance by giving reasons for her proposal
to go cycling in
raised by (b), together with the fact that such reasons would be most
relevant to Peter at this point.
Going on a picnic takes little effort.
assumptions to occur to Peter which, together with other appropriate
premises, might satisfy expectation (c). Accepted as implicit premises of
Going on a picnic is a pleasant and relaxed affair.
of) the first enriched interpretation of Mary's utterance as decoded in
(a) to occur to Peter which, together with (d) and (e), might lead to the
satisfaction of (c). Interpretation accepted as Mary's explicit meaning.
from (d) and (f), contributing to the satisfaction of (b) and (c), and
accepted as an implicit conclusion of Mary's utterance.
from (e) and (f), contributing to the satisfaction of (b) and (c), and
accepted as an implicit conclusion of Mary's utterance.
uses the word ‘picnic’ to indicate the concept PICNIC*, which is part of
what she wants to convey. Peter reconstructs this concept by treating the word
‘picnic’ and its associated mental encyclopaedic entry as a source of
potential implicit premises such as (35d) and (35e). From these implicit
premises and a still-incomplete interpretation of Mary’s explicit meaning, he
tentatively derives the implicit conclusions in (35g) and (35h), which make the
utterance relevant as expected in the situation. He then arrives by backwards
inference at the full interpretation of the explicit content in (35f), and its
constituent concept PICNIC*.
is an unavoidable arbitrariness about the way we have listed the implicit
premises and conclusions in (35). The more metaphorical the interpretation, the
greater the responsibility the hearer has to take for the construction of
implicatures (i.e. implicit premises and conclusions), and the weaker most of
these implicatures will be. Typically, poetic metaphors have a wide range of
potential implicatures, and the audience is encouraged to be creative in
exploring this range (a fact well recognised in literary theory since the
Romantics). Communication need not fail if the implicatures constructed by the
hearer are not identical to those envisaged by the speaker. Some freedom of
interpretation is allowed for, and indeed encouraged, by those who speak
concepts FLAT* and PICNIC* conveyed by Mary’s utterances in (32) and (34) are
neither encoded nor encodable in English as spoken by Mary and Peter at the time
of their exchange. There is no single word or phrase of English which has FLAT*
or PICNIC* as one of its linguistically-encoded senses. However, once Mary and
Peter have successfully communicated one of these concepts, they may be able to
co-ordinate more or less tacitly and adopt a new word or phrase to encode it, or
add to the polysemy of an existing word (e.g. by giving the word ‘flat’ the
additional stable sense FLAT*).
degrees of difficulty are involved in entertaining a linguistically unencodable
concept such as FLAT* or PICNIC*, communicating it, and lexicalising it.
Entertaining a currently unencodable concept (i.e. a concept not encodable given
the resources of the language at that time) is a relatively easy, everyday
affair. As individuals, we engage in such a cognitive practice every time we
discriminate and think about a property not describable by a word or phrase in
our public language, which may well be several times a day. Communicating such
an unencodable concept is a matter of co-ordinating the cognitive activities of
two individuals so that they simultaneously attend to the same property or
object. This is harder than doing it separately, but is still a relatively
frequent affair. Stabilising a word in the public language to encode such a
concept involves co-ordinating cognitive dispositions in a community over time.
This is much harder, and does not normally happen more than, say, a few times a
year in a homogeneous speech community (see Sperber and Wilson 1998a).
the above analysis is correct, the notions explicit,
literal and what is said,
which Grice and Lewis saw as relatively unproblematic, will have to be
rethought. In this final section, we will suggest some lines on which such a
rethinking might be approached.
Grice, a speaker’s meaning consists of what
is said and (optionally) what is
implicated. He introduced the
terms ‘implicate’ and ‘implicature’ to refer to what is implicitly
communicated, but rather than use the symmetrical ‘explicate’ and
‘explicature’, or just talk of what is explicitly communicated, he chose to
contrast what is implicated with the ordinary-language notion what
is said. This terminological choice reflected both a presupposition and a
goal. The presupposition was that what is
said is an intuitively clear, common-sense notion.
The goal was to argue against a view of meaning that ordinary-language
philosophers were defending at the time. To achieve this goal, Grice wanted to
show that what is said is best
described by a relatively parsimonious semantics, while much of the complexity
and subtlety of utterance interpretation should be seen as falling on the
implicit side (Carston 1998; forthcoming). We share Grice's desire to relieve
the semantics of natural language of whatever can be best explained at the
pragmatic level, but we take a rather different view of how this pragmatic
explanation should go.
our account, we give a theoretical status to the notions of explicature
and implicature (roughly, the explicit
and implicit contents of utterances), but not to the notions of literal
meaning or what is said. Indeed, we introduced the term ‘explicature’, on
the model of Grice's ‘implicature’, because we doubt that there is any
common-sense notion of what is said
capable of playing a useful role in the study of verbal comprehension. In our
framework, explicatures are arrived at by a combination of decoding and
inference, while implicatures are wholly inferred. Identifying the explicature
of an utterance is a matter of disambiguating, enriching and fine-tuning the
semantic schema obtained by linguistic decoding. Inferring the implicatures is a
matter of identifying implicit premises and conclusions which yield an overall
interpretation that is relevant in the expected way. As we have shown above,
explicatures and implicatures are typically constructed in parallel, via mutual
adjustment of interpretive hypotheses guided by considerations of relevance.
have already argued that implicatures may vary in strength. The same is true of
explicatures. The identification of an explicature involves a certain amount of
inference. Since the inference process is non-demonstrative and draws on
background knowledge, the hearer must take a certain degree of responsibility
for how it comes out. How much responsibility he has to take varies from
utterance to utterance: explicatures may be weaker or stronger, depending on the
degree of indeterminacy introduced by the inferential aspect of comprehension.
To illustrate, let us return to dialogue (24) and consider three new versions of
Lisa's answer in (36a–c):
(a) Alan Jones: Do you want to join us
Lisa: No, thanks. I've eaten.
(a) Lisa: No, thanks. I've already
Lisa: No, thanks. I've already eaten
Lisa: No, thanks. I've already eaten
identifying the explicit content of all four answers, a certain amount of
inference (and hence a certain degree of indeterminacy) is involved. It might be
thought that the only inferences involved in (36c) are automatic¾just
a matter of fixing the referents of ‘I’ and ‘tonight’¾but
this would be a mistake. When Lisa describes what she has eaten as supper, she
may be speaking loosely. She may have had a sandwich, and be unwilling to eat
again for that reason. So Alan might reasonably take ‘supper’ to mean
SUPPER*: that is, say, enough food to be a substitute for supper. If, instead,
he takes ‘supper’ to mean SUPPER (i.e. a regular evening meal), this is no
less inferential. Whichever of the two interpretations is the first to come to
mind will yield an overall interpretation which is relevant as expected, and
will therefore be accepted.
that the first meaning to occur to Alan need not be the encoded meaning SUPPER.
Suppose he knows that Lisa generally has a salad or a sandwich instead of
supper: then by saying that she has eaten ‘supper’, she may make SUPPER*
more easily accessible than SUPPER. More generally, the most accessible sense
need not be the linguistically-encoded one, so when an encoded lexical sense is
in fact chosen, the same process is involved as when a word is taken to convey a
non-encoded sense. In each case, the first sense accessed and found to
contribute to a relevant-as-expected interpretation is taken to be the intended
four answers (24b) and (36a–c) communicate not just the same overall content
but also the same explicature and implicatures. If this is not immediately
obvious, there is a standard test for deciding whether some part of the
communicated content is explicitly or implicitly conveyed. The test involves
checking whether the item falls within the scope of logical operators when
embedded into a negative or conditional sentence: explicatures fall within the
scope of negation and other logical operators, while implicatures do not
(Carston 1988; Recanati 1989; Wilson and Sperber 1998; Ifantidou 2001). Thus,
consider the hypothesis that the explicature of (24b) is simply the trivial
truth that Lisa has eaten at some point before the time of utterance, and that
she is merely implicating that she has
eaten that evening. The standard embedding test suggests that this hypothesis is
false. If Lisa had produced the utterance, ‘I haven't eaten’ (as in dialogue
(27)), she would clearly not have been saying that she has never eaten in her
life, but merely denying that she has eaten ‘supper’ (i.e. SUPPER or
SUPPER*) that very evening. So in saying, ‘I've eaten,’ Lisa is explicitly
communicating that she has eaten ‘supper’ that very evening.
all four answers convey the same explicature—that Lisa has eaten SUPPER (or
SUPPER*) that evening—there is a clear sense in which it is weaker in (24b)
than in (36a) or (36b), and stronger in (36c). The greater the inferential
element involved (and hence the greater the indeterminacy), the weaker the
explicature will be. In particular, ceteris
paribus, the greater the gap between the encoded meaning of the word and the
concept conveyed by use of that word, the weaker the explicature will be. With
metaphors, explicatures are at their weakest.
the explicature is quite strong, and in particular when each word in an
utterance is used to convey (one of) its encoded meaning(s), what we are calling
the explicature is close to what might be common-sensically described as the
explicit content, or what is said, or the literal meaning of the utterance.
Whether the explicature is strong or weak, the notion of explicature applies
straightforwardly. However, things go differently with the common-sense notions
of literal meaning and what is
notion of literal meaning, which plays such a central role in most theories of
language use, is unclear in many respects. Suppose we define the literal meaning
of a sentence as one of its linguistically-encoded senses. Then the literal
meaning of a sentence never coincides with what the speaker explicitly
communicates by uttering this sentence (except in the case of genuine ‘eternal
sentences,’ if such things exist or are ever used). A speaker's meaning is
typically propositional, and at the very least, reference resolution is needed
in order to get from a sentence meaning to a proposition. It seems more
appropriate, then, to define the literal meaning of an utterance (rather than a
sentence) as the proposition obtained by combining its linguistic sense with its
reference. When the speaker's meaning coincides with this proposition, we do
indeed have a prototypical case of literalness. Suppose an anthropologist
I have eaten human flesh.
most situations, (37) would be relevant enough if it were understood as
explicitly communicating its literal meaning, without any narrowing of the time
span or the way in which the eating of human flesh is understood to have taken
place. This is then a prototypical case where literal meaning (understood as
sense plus reference) coincides with speaker's explicit meaning, or explicature.
However, such cases are the exception rather than the rule.
the first place, there are cases where the explicature cannot simply correspond
to the combination of linguistic sense plus reference, because this is not
enough to determine a unique proposition. Consider (38):
His car is too big.
when the linguistic sense is combined with appropriate referents for the pronoun
‘his’ and the present tense, the result is not a complete proposition.
‘His car’ might be the car he owns, the car he is renting, the car he is
thinking about, and so on, and deciding which it is meant to be is not a matter
of disambiguation or reference assignment, but of enriching the
linguistically-encoded meaning. Similarly, ‘too big’ is indeterminate unless
some contextual criterion is supplied for deciding what counts as big enough in
this case. Such cases are sometimes dealt with by redefining the literal meaning
of an utterance as determined by a combination of sense, plus reference, plus
obligatory enrichment (sometimes known as the ‘minimal proposition’
expressed by an utterance).
Suppose, then, that (38) is enriched as in (39):
The car Bob is planning to steal is too big to hide in the lorry.
this the literal meaning of (38) on that occasion, or is there some other,
simpler literal meaning? If so, what is it? In such cases, intuitions about
literalness become quite unclear.
leaving aside the problem of obligatory enrichment (and other related problems
discussed in Searle 1979, Ch.5), and considering only sentences where the
combination of sense plus reference determines a complete proposition, the fact
is that in most cases, the explicature of an utterance goes well beyond this.
The identification of an explicature may involve enrichment of the encoded
meaning, loosening of the encoded meaning, or some combination of enrichment and
loosening. Such cases are sometimes dealt with by drawing a distinction between literal meaning and literal
use, and treating an utterance as a case of literal use provided that the
explicature departs from the literal meaning only by being richer or more
specific (e.g. Katz 1990, pp 144–6). So when Lisa says, ‘I have eaten’, in
response to Alan's invitation to supper, the literal meaning of her utterance
(the proposition that Lisa has eaten at some point in a time span ending at the
time of utterance) is determined in the regular way by combining sense with
reference. Since her actual meaning (that she has eaten supper that evening) is
an enrichment of the literal meaning, this would count as a case of literal use.
proposal also runs into problems. If enrichment of meaning preserves literalness
of use, then (40) must be treated as a case of literal use:
in classical rhetoric, (40) would be classified as a case of figurative use
(more precisely, as a variety of synecdoche). Here again, intuitions are
probably not clear enough to decide, so the decision would have to be made on
theoretical grounds. But we have argued that a notion of literalness has no role
to play in a theory of language use. The interpretation of every utterance
involves a process of meaning construction, which is the same whether the result
is an enriched, loosened, enriched-and-loosened, or literal interpretation. Yes,
literalness can be defined, or at least characterised, in terms of a prototype,
but, no, verbal understanding does not involve paying any attention to literal
meaning, let alone to literal use. There is no theoretical basis for sharpening
our characterisation of literalness. On the other hand, as we will see, there
may be social pressure to do so.
problems arise with the notion of what is
said. Given that a speaker has produced some utterance U
as an act of verbal communication, what is the proper completion of (41)?
The speaker said that …
The idea that there is a theoretically adequate and useful notion of what is said implies that there is a correct completion of (41) (or a set of semantically equivalent completions) which uniquely captures what is said by uttering U. (This is, of course, compatible with recognising that different completions may be pragmatically acceptable in different situations. For instance, the dots might be replaced by an exegesis, a summary or a sarcastic rendering of U. However, these would not fit the intended notion of what is said.) Prototypical instances of the intended notion are easy to find: they are the same as the prototypical instances of literal meaning. Thus, what was said by the speaker of (37) is unproblematically rendered as (42):
The anthropologist said that she has eaten human flesh.
the speaker’s explicit meaning can be straightforwardly rendered by a
transposition from direct to indirect quotation. However, this is not always so.
Lisa produces the utterance in (24b), ‘I have eaten’ (with an explicature
rather weaker than the one conveyed by (36c), ‘I have already eaten supper
tonight’), what is she saying? Intuitions typically waver. Saying
is often understood in an indirect-quotational sense, where what is said is
properly rendered by an indirect quotation of the original utterance. It might
thus be claimed that in uttering (24b), Lisa is merely saying that she has
eaten; but this would not adequately capture her meaning as we have described it
above. Saying can also be understood
in a commitment sense, where what is said is what the speaker is committing
herself to in producing an utterance. This is typically the sense invoked when,
precisely, the competence or sincerity of the speaker's commitment is being
challenged. Suppose Alan replies to Lisa’s utterance (24b), ‘What you just
said is false: I happen to know that you haven't eaten a thing since lunch.’
By common-sense standards, Alan is not misusing the word ‘said’. However,
his response makes sense only if he was taking Lisa to have said not just that
she has eaten, but that she has eaten that very evening. Of course, Lisa might
then reply that she had so much lunch that she didn't feel like eating anything
more that day. While this might be seen as disingenuous, the explicature of her
utterance is weak enough to leave room for reasonable doubt. On the other hand,
if she had not eaten for days, then in uttering (24b) in this situation, she
would undoubtedly be saying something false.
weaker the explicature of an utterance, the harder it is to paraphrase what the
speaker was saying except in the indirect-quotational sense. It is always safe
to quote the speaker's words (either directly or indirectly), but this is of
limited use. It would be more useful to paraphrase the speaker's meaning, except
for the element of arbitrariness involved. This vacillation between a
quotational and a commitment sense of ‘saying’ is particularly obvious in
the case of metaphor. On the one hand, we may feel that here the only safe sense
is the quotational one. When Mary produces the utterance in (34), ‘
commit themselves, and they can be criticised for their commitments. Often,
however, the exact character of their commitment can be disputed. This happens
quite regularly at home, in public life, and in court. Arguing about what was
said—both its content and its truthfulness—is a social practice conducted
within the framework of ‘folk-linguistics.’ The notions of literal
meaning and what is said come from
folk-linguistics, and they may well play a useful (or even indispensable) role
within this framework. Most people are more interested in the norms governing
linguistic communication than in the mechanisms by which it is achieved. The
apparent platitudes listed at the beginning of this paper—as speakers, we
expect what we say to be accepted as true, as hearers, we expect what is said to
us to be true—are versions of one of these folk-linguistic norms, a norm of
truthfulness in what is said.
the situations where it is typically appealed to, the norm of truthfulness is a
reasonable requirement on verbal communication. It is generally invoked when the
audience suspects that it is being violated, and it is very rare for a speaker
accused of violating it to dispute its applicability. By contrast, disagreements
about what was actually said are not rare at all. The notion of literal meaning
is typically invoked in the context of such disputes. It is often easier to
agree on the literal meaning of an utterance, and on its literal truth or
falsity, than on what the speaker meant, or what the hearer could reasonably
have understood. A speaker can retreat behind the literal meaning of her
utterance, which may have been true even if the utterance was misleading. A
hearer can point out that what was literally said was false, and the speaker may
reply that she was not intending to be taken so literally. Many such arguments
are never settled. This shows the limitations of any description of the
speaker's commitment in terms of the folk-linguistic notion of saying.
very idea that what a speaker says should always (with the possible exception of
poetry) be either literal or paraphrasable by means of a literal utterance is an
illusion of folk-linguistics. Western folk-linguistics, at least, is committed
to a code model of communication from which it follows that what is said should
always be transparent or paraphrasable. Efforts to bring communicative practice
into line with this ideal have had some effect on language use. In forms of
verbal interaction where the speaker’s commitments are particularly important
from a social point of view (in science or law, for example), there is a demand
that speech should in general be literal, and that occasional departures from
literalness should be overt and obvious: occasional metaphors are acceptable,
but not the loose uses found in ordinary exchanges. How well the demand is
actually satisfied is another matter. In general, folk-linguistic theories about
communicative practice have rather limited and peripheral effects on the natural
processes of speech and comprehension, where so many of the sub-processes
involved are automatic and impenetrable (cf. Levelt 1989).
may have seemed reasonable to philosophers such as Paul Grice or David Lewis to
base their philosophy of language on a reformulated norm of truthfulness.
However, their reformulations did not go far enough. Both Grice and Lewis took
for granted that truthfulness based on the conventional meaning of utterances is
expected (for Grice, conventional meaning is just literal meaning; for Lewis, it
is literal or figurative meaning, with figurative meaning being derived from
literal meaning). This assumption played a central role in Lewis's explanation
of how linguistic meaning could be conventional, and in Grice's account of how
non-conventional meanings could be conveyed.
We agree that, at least in most cases, a hearer who attends to an utterance expects to be informed of something. We agree with Grice that ‘false information is not an inferior kind of information; it just is not information’ (Grice 1989a, p. 371). So, yes, hearers expect to be provided with true information. But there is an infinite supply of true information which is not worth attending to. Actual expectations are of relevant information, which (because it is information) is also true. However, we have argued that there just is no expectation that the true information communicated by an utterance should be literally or conventionally expressed, as opposed to being explicated or implicated in the sense we have discussed here.
meaning is far too schematic and fragmentary to be capable of being true or
false: it is just an input to further processing. Contrary to the standard view,
this further processing does not consist simply in combining linguistic sense
with contextual reference in order to determine a literal meaning. The fact that
the speaker has produced this utterance with this linguistic meaning is expected
to provide a relevant piece of evidence and a point of departure for inferring
the speaker's meaning. The resulting explicatures and implicatures are in turn
expected to provide worthwhile input for further processing: that is, to be
relevant (and therefore true).
Wilson and Dan Sperber
Jean Nicod (CNRS & EHESS
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 In this paper we will focus on metaphor, hyperbole and a range of related phenomena. For analyses of irony and understatement, see Sperber and Wilson (1981; 1986a, Ch.4, Scs.7, 9; 1990; 1998b); Wilson and Sperber (1992).
 For discussion, see Gross (1998).
 Since what we are calling ‘loose uses’ shade off into figurative uses such as hyperbole and metaphor, it might be argued that Lewis’s analysis of vagueness could be saved by treating ‘run’ and certain other examples which present problems for his analysis as falling on the figurative side (cf. Gross 1998). But this would merely transfer them from one problematic category to another since, as we have argued, neither Lewis nor Grice has proposed a satisfactory analysis of tropes. Moreover, the move would be ad hoc since, as we have also shown, these uses have little in common with standard examples of metaphor and hyperbole recognised in the literature on rhetoric.
 A positive cognitive effect is a genuine improvement in knowledge. When false information is mistakenly accepted as true, this is a cognitive effect, but not a positive one: it does not contribute to relevance (though it may seem to the individual to do so). For discussion, see the Postface to the second edition of Relevance (Sperber and Wilson 1995), section 3.2.1.
A hearer's expectations of relevance may be more or less sophisticated. In
an unsophisticated version, presumably the one always used by young
children, what is expected is actual optimal relevance. In a more
sophisticated version, used by competent adult communicators who are aware
that the speaker may be mistaken about what is relevant to the hearer, or in
bad faith and merely intending to appear relevant, what is expected is a
speaker's meaning that it may have seemed to the speaker would seem
optimally relevant to the hearer. Adult communicators may nevertheless
expect actual optimal relevance by default. Here we will ignore these
complications, but see Sperber (1994);
 In the case of deliberate equivocation, where an utterance is intentionally constructed so that two apparently satisfactory competing interpretations occur to the hearer and he is unable to choose between them, neither interpretation is directly accepted. Rather, it is the fact that the speaker has produced such an utterance that is seen as a communicative act. It receives a higher-order interpretation, which may involve endorsing both lower-order interpretations (if they are compatible), or rejecting both (if they are not). For examples and discussion, see Sperber and Wilson (1987, p. 751).
 For instance, Jorgensen, Miller and Sperber (1984); Happé (1993); Sperber, Cara, and Girotto (1995); Politzer (1996); Gibbs and Moise (1997); Hardman (1998); Matsui (1998; 2000); Nicolle and Clark (1999); Van der Henst (1999); Noveck, Bianco, and Castry (2001); Girotto, Kemmelmeir, Sperber, and Van der Henst (2001); Van der Henst, Carles, and Sperber (forthcoming); Van der Henst, Sperber, and Politzer (2002). As noted above, Van der Henst, Carles, and Sperber (forthcoming) provides a direct experimental test of the claim that considerations of relevance outweigh considerations of truthfulness in verbal communication.
This is a variant of an example introduced in Sperber and Wilson (1986a, pp.
189–90)—there it was ‘I have had breakfast’—which has been much
discussed (e.g. Recanati 1989; Bach 1994; Carston 1998; forthcoming;
 We are using ‘concept’ in the psychological sense, to mean (roughly) the mental representation of a property.
 There is now a considerable literature on hidden constituents (and more generally, on possible pragmatic contributions to explicit content). See, for example, Bach (1994; 1997; 2000); Groefsema (1995); Bezuidenhout (1997); Stainton (1997; 1998); Carston (2000; forthcoming); Neale (2000); Stanley (2000); Stanley and Szabo (2000); Taylor (forthcoming); Recanati (forthcoming).
This will obviously involve some rethinking of the notion of explicitness
itself. We do this in §7 below.
In fact, for a large country, being FLAT* is incompatible
with being flat: if
 See Grice (1989a, pp. 359–368) on the centrality of the intuitive notion of saying, which he characterised in what he acknowledged was ‘a certain favored, and maybe in some degree artificial, sense’ (Grice 1967, p. 118).
We are considering here only what we call basic or first-level explicatures.
We also claim that there are higher-level explicatures which do not normally
contribute to the truth conditions of the utterance (Wilson and Sperber
1993; Carston 2000; Ifantidou 2001).
Whatever the proposition expressed by a literal utterance of (38), it
entails the existentially quantified proposition There
is a relationship between the referent of ‘his’ and a unique car, and
there is a criterion of size, such that this car is too big by this
criterion. However, this proposition is never the utterance meaning of
(38), and it would be highly counter-intuitive to treat it as its literal
 See, for example, Travis (1985); Carston (1988; 1998; 2000; forthcoming); Recanati (1989; forthcoming); Bach (1994; 1997; 2000).
Note that, in order to ground a clear notion of literalness, the notion of
enrichment itself must be properly defined. It cannot be defined in terms of
entailment since, presumably, literalness of use is maintained under
negation or embedding (e.g. in the antecedent of a conditional), whereas
entailment relations are not: I have
eaten is entailed by I have eaten
supper tonight, but I have not
eaten is not entailed by I have
not eaten supper tonight; similarly with If
I have/haven’t eaten (supper tonight), then P).
Although her notion of a convention, and of the role of intention in
communication, differs from those of Lewis or Grice, Ruth Millikan (1984)
also bases her philosophy of language on a version of the norm of
truthfulness (see Origgi and Sperber 2000 for discussion).
 For further discussion of the relation between truth and relevance, see the Postface to the second edition of Relevance (Sperber and Wilson 1995), section 3.2.1.
 We are grateful to two anonymous reviewers for Mind, to Robyn Carston, Steven Gross, Corinne Iten, Pierre Jacob, Stephen Neale, Gloria Origgi, Francois Recanati, Rob Stainton, Jason Stanley, and the members of the UCL Pragmatics Reading Group for many helpful comments and suggestions.