Uncategorized

PPFF #165: implicature

Good morning,

Apologies for missing in action last week. I was away (mentally) for the past couple of weeks. The good news is that little distraction is coming to an end and my attention is back where it should be; here.

There’s a scene in When Harry met Sally (old film – I know) where Harry is trying to introduce Sally to his friend Jess. Here’s how the conversation goes.

Jess: If she’s so great why aren’t you taking her out?

Harry: How many times do I have to tell you, we’re just friends.

Jess: So you’re saying she’s not that attractive.

Harry: No, I told you she is attractive.

Jess: Yeah but you also said she has a good personality.

Harry: She has a good personality.

Jess: When someone’s not that attractive, they’re always described as having a good personality.

Harry: Look, if you had asked me what does she look like and I said, she has a good personality, that means she’s not attractive. But just because I happen to mention that she has a good personality, she could be either. She could be attractive with a good personality, or not attractive with a good personality

In the last part of the conversation, Harry basically explained the concept of ‘implicature’, a term coined by Paul Grice in 1961, to describe uttered words or sentences implying a meaning beyond the literal sense of what is explicitly stated.

Let me explain further.

Anna: Is he attractive?

Brown: He has a good personality.

Basically, Brown would have meant that he is not attractive. But the words in his sentence in themselves don’t mean that he’s not attractive, as Brown did not say that he isn’t attractive. He implied it i.e. Brown implicated that he is not attractive (that he is not attractive was his implicature. Another example below.

Charlie: Did you kill Brown, because he’s not attractive?

Dianna: I found him attractive.

Here Dianna didn’t really answer the question and she is misleading as Dianna is not directly confirming or denying either way. Dianna is uttering those words to lead Charlie to infer that Dianna meant she didn’t kill Brown because she found him attractive as the basis of her killing would have been whether she found him attractive or not. But Charlie’s inference would have to be accompanied with the assumption that Dianna’s reply was indeed in response to Charlie’s question in that particular context. If Charlie did assume and infer the (supposedly) implied, that would leave Dianna room to manoeuvre later and claim “I’ve never said that”, which technically isn’t untrue. It’s a great skill/trick if you know how to use it, and a huge pain if you’re at the receiving end of it. So, if you have yet to master this art,  save yourselves the trouble of inference, and be direct.

Have a good Friday.

Advertisements