Gricean Conversational Implicature: What We Say and What We Mean

Author: Thomas Hodgson
Category: Philosophy of Mind and Language
Word count: 997

Alex and Chris are making cabbage soup and realize that there isn’t any cabbage in the kitchen. Alex states ‘there is a market nearby’. Chris takes Alex to have said that there is a market nearby. Alex also meant that cabbage can be bought at that market, and Chris recognises this.

The example suggests a general distinction between things that are merely meant, and things that are both meant and said. This essay explores the difference between these by introducing British philosopher Paul Grice’s (1913–1988) theory of “conversational implicature”.[1]

In Grice’s theory, the thing that is meant but not said—that cabbage can now be bought there—is a conversational implicature.[2] The theory uses a central idea—that communication is a rational, cooperative process—and uses it to explain facts about how we communicate.

Paul Grice and the cover of his "Studies in the Way of Words."
Paul Grice and the cover of his Studies in the Way of Words.

1. Being Cooperative

The cabbage situation is a normal situation. Chris recognised what Alex meant, even though it was not literally said. The question that Grice’s theory is trying to answer is how this is possible.

Grice proposes that conversation is governed by what he calls the Cooperative Principle:[3] “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.”

This might be paraphrased as the requirement to provide the right information at the right time in a helpful way.

2. The Maxims

Grice then proposes some further maxims, or rules. These are rules which cooperative speakers can be expected to follow.[4] The maxims are divided into four categories: Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Manner.[5]


1. “Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).”
2. “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.”


“Try to make your contribution one that is true.”

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


“Be relevant.”


“Be perspicuous.”

1. “Avoid obscurity of expression.”
2. “Avoid ambiguity.”
3. “Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).”[6]
4. “Be orderly.”

If speakers are cooperative, and generally follow the maxims, conclusions can be drawn about what they mean. This will be particularly relevant in cases where what they say is not obviously cooperative.

3. Calculating Conversational Implicatures

According to Grice, conversational implicatures can be inferred by making the assumption that the speaker is cooperative, and that they are therefore following the maxims, or breaking them for some good reason.[7]

In the cabbage example, what Alex says is not sufficiently relevant to Chris to satisfy the maxim of relevance, unless Alex thinks that the market has cabbage.[8] The mere fact that there is a market nearby does not help with the soup. But, Chris has no reason to think that Alex is not being cooperative. On that basis, Chris can reason that Alex means something that is relevant. The obvious relevant thing is that cabbage can be bought at the market nearby.[9]

In the cabbage example, the maxims have been followed. Grice presents further examples of conversational implicature, which are inferred using different maxims. In some of these cases, a maxim has been broken.

Suppose Alex asks “where is the salt?” and Chris responds “somewhere in the kitchen.” What Alex requires at that point in the conversation is more specific information about where the salt is. Chris is not following the maxim of Quantity. The assumption that Chris is being cooperative can be maintained only if a more specific response would violate some other maxim. If Chris does not know where in the kitchen the salt is, any more specific response would violate the second maxim of Quality (“Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.”). This generates the implicature that Chris does not know where in the kitchen the salt is.

Another sort of example involves a speaker who deliberately breaks a maxim, and the implicature is inferred as an explanation of why they did so. Suppose that Alex is giving a reference for Chris who is applying for a job as a chef, and that Alex is in a position to form a good opinion about Chris’ qualifications. Alex states “Chris is always on time,” and nothing else. Alex could have provided more information about Chris’s qualifications. The reasonable explanation of why Alex did not is that Chris does not have any, although Alex does not want to say that. The conversational implicature is that Chris is not a good candidate for the job.[10]

4. Cancellation

Grice proposed a test for distinguishing conversational implicatures from what is said.[11] Conversational implicatures are easy to cancel. This means either that the context is such that the implicature does not arise, or that the sentence can be followed with an explicit denial of what, in another context, would be a natural implicature.[12]

For an example of cancellation, consider a variation of the cabbage example where Alex continues their utterance of “there is a market nearby” with “but I think that it is closed today.” In that case, Chris will not take Alex to have meant that cabbage can be bought there. There is no sense of contradiction. This is unlike a situation where Alex’s continuation is “but there is no market nearby,” which is incompatible with what Alex said.

5. Conclusion

Grice’s theory has been extremely influential. Most contemporary work on communication in linguistics and philosophy is a development of or a reaction against Grice.

The most important application in philosophy, one which Grice intended, is that what an expression, such as the sentence ‘there is a market nearby’,  means should not be confused with what speakers mean when they use that expression.[13]

Grice’s theory provides a way to distinguish between the two in a principled way, and explain how an expression that has a relatively simple meaning can be used to communicate something different and more complex. This then allows for simpler theories of what expressions mean, because what is communicated can be explained by the principles of the theory.


[1] Grice taught at Oxford and Berkeley. His most famous contributions to philosophy of language are his 1967 William James Lectures. The lectures are published as Grice 1989d, part 1. For an overview of Grice’s life and work see Chapman 2005. For a survey of Grice’s ideas see Neale 1995. Blome-Tillman 2013 is a longer introduction to conversational implicature.

[2] Grice introduces the term ‘implicate’ to cover what might otherwise be called ‘suggesting’, ‘implying’, or ‘meaning’ (Grice 1989b, 24–25). He does this to show that he is using a technical term in order to present his theory. Grice distinguishes conversational implicature, which is what this entry is about, from conventional implicature (Grice 1989b, 25–26).

[3] Grice 1989b, 26.

[4] Whether it is true that speakers generally follow the maxims is another question.

[5] These quotations are all from Grice 1989b, 26–27. People discussing Grice’s work sometimes refer to the categories as ‘maxims’, e.g., ‘the maxim of Manner’. In Grice’s presentation, Quality, Relation, and Manner are described as including ‘supermaxims’, e.g., ‘be perspicuous’, and further maxims that fall under the category, e.g., ‘avoid obscurity of expression’. Grice allows that the lists of maxims might be extended and improved.

[6] Grice is joking: this is itself unnecessarily prolix, i.e., it uses too many words.

[7] In Grice’s terms, implicatures are ‘calculated’, rather than ‘inferred’. Grice 1989b, 31 says that conversational implicatures are calculable: they can be derived from the assumption of the cooperative principle and the maxims. He does not say that speakers must consciously calculate them. The important idea, for Grice and those who have developed his ideas, is that general principles of rational behavior can explain observed facts about the use of language. For more on this, see Saul 2002.

[8] Grice 1989b, 32.

[9] One might think that we do not need a complicated theory of this kind of example. Isn’t it obvious that in some sense Alex says one thing and means another, and what it is that is meant? The thing to keep in mind is that Grice intends to provide a general explanation for a range of cases, including ones that are obvious, and that the explanation he provides is of a certain sort, i.e., that it makes use of the cooperative principle.

[10] Grice 1989b, 32–37 divides conversational examples into Group A, B, and C, and gives several sorts of examples of each. The cabbage example is Group A, where the maxims are followed. The salt example is Group B, where one maxim is broken in order to satisfy another. The reference example is Group C, where the maxims are broken. One thing this shows is that, according to Grice, we can communicate perfectly well without following the maxims.

[11] Grice 1989b, 39; 1989a, 43–44.

[12] Zakkou 2018 is a longer introduction to the cancellability test.

[13] Grice 1989c presents this motivation and several examples of philosophical questions that were actively discussed by Grice’s contemporaries.


Blome-Tillmann, Michael. 2013. ‘Conversational Implicatures (and How to Spot Them)’. Philosophy Compass 8 (2): 170–85.

Chapman, Siobhan. 2005. Paul Grice: Philosopher and Linguist. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Grice, Paul. 1989a. ‘Further Notes on Logic and Conversation’. In Studies in the Way of Words, 41–57. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Grice, Paul. 1989b. ‘Logic and Conversation’. In Studies in the Way of Words, 22–40. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Grice, Paul. 1989c. ‘Prolegomena’. In Studies in the Way of Words, 3–21. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Grice, Paul. 1989d. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Neale, Stephen. 1992. ‘Paul Grice and the Philosophy of Language’. Linguistics and Philosophy 15 (5): 509–59.

Saul, Jennifer Mather. 2002. ‘What Is Said and Psychological Reality; Grice’s Project and Relevance Theorists’ Criticisms’. Linguistics and Philosophy 25 (3): 347–72.

Zakkou, Julia. 2018. ‘The Cancellability Test for Conversational Implicatures’. Philosophy Compass 13 (12).

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Grice's Maxim's of Conversation. Image created by Cédric Eyssette:
Grice’s Maxim’s of Conversation. Image created by Cédric Eyssette

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About the Author

Thomas Hodgson has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of St Andrews, and works at the School of Philosophy and Sociology, Shanxi University. His interests are philosophy of language and metaphysics.

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