In our daily life, speakers and listeners involved in conversation are generally cooperating with each other. In other words, when people are talking with each other, they must try to converse smoothly and successfully. In accepting speakers’ presuppositions, listeners have to assume that a speaker is not trying to mislead them. This sense of cooperation is simply one in which people having a conversation are not normally assumed to be trying to confuse, trick, or withhold relevant information from one another.
However, in real communication, the intention of the speaker is often not the literal meaning of what he or she says. The real intention implied in the words is called conversational implicature.
A: Can you tell me the time?
B: Well, the milkman has come.
In this little conversation, A is asking B about the time, but B is not answering directly. That indicates that B may also not know the accurate time, but through saying “the milkman has come”, he is in fact giving a rough time. The answer B gives is related to the literal meaning of the words, but is not merely that. That is often the case in communication. The theory of conversational implicature is for the purpose of explaining how listeners infer the speakers’ intention through the words.
Conversational implicature is a nonconventional implicature based on an addressee’s assumption that the speaker is following the conversational maxims or at least the cooperative principle.The study of conversational implicature starts from Grice (1967), the American philosopher. He thinks, in daily communication, people are observing a set of basic rules of cooperating with each other so as to communicate effectively through conversation. He calls this set of rules the cooperative principle (CP) elaborated in four sub-principles (maxims), that is the cooperative principle.
The Cooperative Principle
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. The maxims are:
- Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
- Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
2. Quality – Try to make your contribution one that is true.
- Do not say what you believe to be false.
- Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
3. Relation – Be relevant
4. Manner – Be perspicuous.
- Avoid obscurity of expression.
- Avoid ambiguity.
- Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
- Be orderly.
We assume that people are normally going to provide an appropriate amount of information, i.e. they are telling the relevant truth clearly. The cooperative principle given by Grice is an idealized case of communication. However, there are more cases that speakers are not fully adhering to the principles. But the listener will assume that the speaker is observing the principles “in a deeper degree”.
A: Where is Bill?
B: There is a yellow car outside Sue’s house.
In , the speaker B seems to be violating the maxims of quantity and relation, but we also assume that B is still observing the CP and think about the relationship between A’s question and the “yellow car” in B’s answer. If Bill has a yellow car, he may be in Sue’s house.
If a speaker violates CP by the principle itself, there is no conversation at all, so there cannot be implicature. Implicature can only be caused by violating one or more maxims. The people in conversation may violate one or more maxims secretly. In this way, he may mislead the listener. In this case, in the conversation  above, we assume that B is observing the CP and Bill has a yellow car. But if B is intentionally trying to mislead A to think that Bill is in Sue’s house, we will be misled without knowing. In this case, if one “lies” in conversation, there is no implicature in the conversation, only the misleading.
He may declare that he is not observing the maxims or the CP. In this kind of situation, the speaker directly declares he is not cooperating. He has made it clear that he does not want to go on with the conversation, so there is no implicature either. He may fall into a dilemma.
For example, for the purpose observing the first principle of the maxim of quantity (make your contribution as informative as is required), he may be violating the second principle of the maxim of quality (do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence).
For this case, Grice gave an example:
A: Where does C live?
B: Somewhere in the south of France.
In , if B knows that A is going to visit C, his answer is violating the maxim of quantity, because he is not giving enough information about where C lives. But he has not declared that he will not observe the maxims. So we can know that B knows if he gives more information, he will violate the principle “do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence”. In other words, he has fallen into a “dilemma”. So we can infer that his implicature is that he does not know the exact address of C. In this case, there is conversational implicature.
He may “flout” one or more maxims. In other words, he may be obviously not observing them.
The last situation is the typical case that can make conversational implicature. Once the participant in a conversation has made an implicature, he or she is making use one of the maxims. We can see that from the following examples:
A: Where are you going with the dog?
B: To the V-E-T.
In , the dog is known to be able to recognize the word “vet” and to hate being taken there. Therefore, A makes the word spelled out. Here he is “flouting” the maxim of manner, making the implicature that he does not want the dog to know the answer to the question just asked.
(In a formal get-together)
A: Mrs. X is an old bag.
B: The weather has been quite delightful this summer, hasn’t it?
B is intentionally violating the maxim of relation in , implicating that what A has said is too rude and he should change a topic.