Definition of term Conversational Implicatures

Conversational Implicatures help with analysing the pragmatics of a conversation. Paul Grice (1975, Logic and Conversation) proposed four pragmatic maxims of Quantity, Quality, Relation and Manner. Grice’s overall Co-operative Principle is: “A rough general principle which participants will be expected (ceteris paribus) to observe, namely: Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.’ (Grice 1975: 45). In other words, we converse co-operatively, and always try to understand each other in terms of exchanging information.

Maxims of Quantity

Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as necessary.
Do not make your contribution to the conversation more informative than necessary.

Consider the following short poem by Stevie Smith, where the damage is done in the last couplet by giving too much information:

Come, wed me, Lady Singleton,
And we will have a baby soon
And we will live in Edmonton
Where all the friendly people run.

I could never make you happy, darling,
Or give you the baby you want,
I would always very much rather, dear,
Live in a tent.

I am not a cold woman, Henry,
But I do not feel for you,
What I feel for the elephants and the miasmas
And the general view.

Maxims of Quality

Do not say what you believe to be false.
Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

When someone says “you’re a star”, this is not, on the surface, cooperative, as people are not stars but human beings. However by flouting the Maxim of Quality the implicature results that the co-locutor has star-like qualities (brightness, standing out). It is the implicature that maintains cooperation. Of course, if you deliberately lie, then you break the Maxims of Quality, and fail to maintain cooperation.

Maxim of Relation

Be relevant.

Otherwise you will confound, bore, mislead or perplex your listener. Children learn to observe the Maxim of Relation rather late on in childhood; ten-year-olds are still likely to announce whatever is on their mind, rather than pertinent to the topic at hand.

Maxim of Manner

Avoid obscurity of expression.
Avoid ambiguity.
Be brief.
Be orderly.

H. P. Grice. 1975. ‘Logic and Conversation.’ In P. Cole and J. L. Morgan (eds). Syntax and Semantics, Vol 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press.

See also G. N. Leech and M. Short. 1981. Style in Fiction. Longman. (Chapter 9, especially 9.1.2, pp. 294-9.)

Demonstration of term Grice’s Conversational Maxims in action

Here is a very brief fictional conversation. As you read through, consider whether any of Grice’s conversational maxims apply. Rosemary is Rhiannon’s grown-up daughter.

When he had got out of his very shiny bright-blue car and at a second attempt shut its drivers’s door, Malcolm revealed himself to be wearing a hacking jacket in dark red, green and fawn checks that were too large by an incredibly small amount, cavalry-twill trousers he must have been uncommonly fond of, a pale green I’m-going-out-for-the-day-with-my-old-girl-friend cravat or ascot and, thank goodness, a plain shirt and ordinary brown lace-up shoes. Seen closer to, he proved to have an ample shaving-cut on his cheek, about like a boil on the end of his nose to him and not worth a second glance to anybody else. He carried a florist’s plastic-wrapped bouquet of a good forty-quid’s-worth of red roses and pink carnations which he handed over to Rhiannon fast and at arm’s length.

‘Lovely to see you,’ he muttered, obviously discarding on the spot an earlier draft, and called ‘Hallo’ with unmeant abruptness to Rosemary, whom he had met more than once before but never for long, and had not bargained on seeing now. Then he took in the puppy and loosened up a little. ‘Ah, now here’s a splendid fellow and no mistake.’

‘Hallo, Malcolm,’ said Rosemary, ‘female fellow actually,’ and went on with exemplary stuff about how he would not have said that if he had been on the spot just earlier, the awful chewing, etc. Rhiannon fixed the yellow rose in his button-hole and passed the bouquet to Rosemary, who had set Nelly down on the grass as now to be considered defused.

‘Put them in that pretty Wedgwood jug – they’ll look marvellous in there – and find somewhere in the cool for them.’ Rhiannon was too shy herself to embark on a full-treatment head-on thank you. ‘We’ll decide on a proper place when I get back. That won’t be before five at the earliest – I’ve got one or two things to see to in town first.’ The last bit was said looking over her daughter’s shoulder.


This conversation is not terribly successful as both Malcolm and Rhiannon are embarrassed. Malcolm has gone to great lengths over this visit: he’s washed his car and put an abnormal amount of effort into his attire, choosing a jacket with a fussy design, trousers that anyone else would have got rid of and a pale green ascot or cravat. Presumably the opinion (“he must have been uncommonly fond of”, “thank goodness”, “exemplary”) reflects Rhiannon’s viewpoint. As you will know from your exophoric experience of late twentieth-century British dress, not many men can carry off a pale green cravat or ascot successfully. And what about a mixture of red roses and pink carnations, of which Malcolm has bought far too many?

Malcolm flouts the Maxim of Quality in his hyperbolic expressions (“lovely to see you”, “splendid fellow”, “look marvelous”), although such exaggeration is socially normal. It would be perverse to greet with ‘you’re looking relatively okay, given your age, income and genetic material, and your dog is dog-like’, even though such observations would fulfill the Maxim of Quality. British social politeness convention demands that we say untruths in these situations, and to omit to do so gives offence. When Malcolm merely calls “Hallo” to Rosemary, without any further enquiry as to her health or comment on her well-being, he abides by the Maxim of Quantity, as he doesn’t actually need this information. However he goes against politeness convention, which demands at least a minimal “How are you?”

Malcolm fails to perform phatic communication, as indeed does Rhiannon. Phatic communication is the technical term for small-talk. Small-talk is a misnomer in that it sounds trivial, whereas it is compulsory. People who manage phatic communication well are thought to be charming; people who mismanage it give offence. Here, it is the unemotionally-involved Rosemary who is able to communicate phatically, talking about the behaviour of the dog. What she says is unimportant semantically (“exemplary stuff”, “the awful chewing, etc.”) but important pragmatically. Knowing how to greet, how to say goodbye, when to keep silent, when to laugh, when to make eye-contact and how much, how to nod and make suitable facial expressions and look interested in your co-locutor – all of these vary from culture to culture, and are essential for successful communication. Typically, such skills are learnt relatively late in development, and girls tend to master them before boys. Teenagers are often judged to be surly when they haven’t yet completed their repertoire of phatic communication strategies.

What did Malcolm and Rhiannon do wrong? Malcolm says “Lovely to see you”, which is perfectly adequate (and indeed better than the prepared speech would have been), but thrusts the expensive bouquet at arm’s length without a comment, a compliment, or any kind of gesture of embrace or kiss on the cheek. He is also brusque with Rosemary. Rhiannon spends more time talking to, and embracing, Rosemary than she does Malcolm.

Literary Exercise

In the following text, Emm is Joy’s aunt, and Joy and Tom are toddler Jonny’s parents.

Emm picks up her false teeth off the draining board and sticks them in her mouth.

‘I owe my tallyman fourteen pound. Mind you I had a pair of black tights and they’ve all shrivelled up, gone all funny.’

There was a loud banging on the door. ‘Three knocks Emm, that’s us.’

‘This time of morning. You go Joy.’

‘Frit the blacks out of me that did.’

Jonny ran to the door and Joy picked him up and carried him downstairs. She unlatched the door. There on the step stood Tom.

‘You’ve lost weight,’ she said. ‘I thought you weren’t coming out till tomorrer.’

‘No today, trust you to get it wrong. Well aren’t you going to let me in?’

‘I don’t know as I should seeing as there’s a divorce proceeding.’

‘Let me come in Joy – I want to see Jonny.’ Jonny was hiding his face in his mother’s neck. She led the way up the stairs.

‘Emm it’s him – I’ve said he can have some tea.’ On the landing mad Bet shrieked, ‘Men, men, men, always men in there.’

Tom sat on a chair, his face was blotchy from prison, his hands coarsened.

Joy curled her pony tail round her fingers.

‘So what do you want?’ Jonny still clung to her.

‘Hasn’t he come on lovely Joy.’

‘You make the tea,’ said Emm. ‘I’m going across for a packet of fags.’

‘I met this bloke inside, given me the address of a place out at Catford. Two bedrooms, kitchen and balcony – only three quid a week and in perfect nick.’


‘Come back with me – give it a try for little Jonny’s sake – I’ll never lift a finger to you I promise.’

She stood apart from him and watched the tears run down his ugly face.

‘I love you Joy.’

‘I’ve got a lot to give up,’ thought Joy. She looked round the room. ‘At the same time I haven’t got a lot to give up.’

Comment on anything interesting in the passages of dialogue, using Grice’s maxims to show how the utterances relate to each other. Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


Emm begins by commenting on her financial state (a tallyman supplied goods on credit, paid for in instalments), when she and Joy hear their specific door-knock signal of three knocks. ‘Three knocks Emm, that’s us.’, says Joy, fulfilling all four maxims. ‘This time of morning. You go Joy.’ replies Emm, fulfilling the Maxim of Relation by means of implicature. The knocks have nothing to do with the time of day in themselves; the implication is that Emm is not expecting visitors and resents the intrusion. Joy recognizes that this maxim has been fulfilled by picking up the affront and expanding on the unexpectedness of the knock: ‘Frit the blacks out of me that did.’

On seeing Tom, Joy says ‘You’ve lost weight,’ and ‘I thought you weren’t coming out till tomorrer.’ Both of these observations fulfill the Maxim of Quality in that they are (presumably) true. Joy fulfills the Maxim of Relevance by implicature: her observation about his weight is due to his time in prison, and her statement about the date explains why she wasn’t expecting him. Politeness convention demands a greeting when meeting one’s spouse after a long absence, and Joy fails to give one. Tom cannot help but deduce that he is not particularly welcome.

Tom corrects her statement about the date: ‘No today, trust you to get it wrong’ and asks: ‘Well aren’t you going to let me in?’ Joy responds negatively and gives her reason. He pleads, saying he wants to see his son, and she relents. Joy’s comment to Emm ‘Emm it’s him – I’ve said he can have some tea.’, fulfils the Maxim of Relation by implicature, as there is only one person sufficiently significant to be referred to as him.

Joy asks ‘So what do you want?’, challenging Tom to fulfill the Maxim of Relation (“be relevant”). As Joy has started to divorce Tom, his presence in her home cannot be taken for granted and he has to negotiate for it (at this point tactful Emm finds an excuse to remove herself: ‘I’m going across for a packet of fags’, the preposition across fulfilling the Maxim of Relation by implicature, meaning ‘across the road’).

Tom then gives information about the flat at Catford, which adheres to the Maxim of Relation by implicature, the implication being that he wants Joy to come and live with him there. She pretends to misunderstand by assuming that this maxim has been flouted and responds “So?”. Tom then gives three other reasons. Joy has a conflicting response, thinking firstly of her independence, and then of her economic situation.

Despite Joy’s lack of cooperation, the conversation turns out to have been successful, as after the last sentence comes a blank line and three asterisks, indicating a minor pause in the chapter, and the subsequent paragraph begins “The flat out at Catford wasn’t too bad”.

Teaching Point

Grice’s maxims are not necessarily adhered to on the surface; it is often the implicatures that enable cooperative conversation. British culture has a politeness code, which often causes problems for second-language learners.  ‘So what do you want?’, although direct and purposeful, is likely to give offence, as only in very close relationships can one be so direct.

Cravat or ascot? What Tom would have been wearing was actually an ascot, but in common parlance it is referred to as a cravat. OED cravat, n . “…More recently the name was given to a linen or silk handkerchief passed once (or twice) round the neck outside the shirt collar and tied with a bow in front; also to a long woollen ‘comforter’ wrapped round the neck to protect from cold out of doors.”. Tom’s neck-garment would not have had bow in front, neither would it have been woolly – this entry was written in 1893. The garment is found under the second definition given in the 1957 entry for Ascot, n.: “Double scarf that is informally looped under the chin”.  Cravat has come to subsume ascot.

Madeleine Chéruit,portrait etching by Paul Helleu.