Relevance theory is a cognitive approach to pragmatics which starts from two broadly Gricean assumptions: (a) that much human communication, both verbal and non-verbal, involves the overt expression and inferential recognition of intentions, and (b) that in inferring these intentions, the addressee presumes that the communicator’s behavior will meet certain standards, which for Grice are based on a Cooperative Principle and maxims, and for relevance theory are derived from the assumption that, as a result of constant selection pressures in the course of human evolution, both cognition and communication are relevance-oriented. Relevance is defined in terms of cognitive (or contextual) effects and processing effort: other things being equal, the greater the cognitive effects and the smaller the processing effort, the greater the relevance. A long-standing aim of relevance theory has been to show that building an adequate theory of communication involves going beyond Grice’s notion of speaker’s meaning. Another is to provide a conceptually unified account of how a much broader variety of communicative acts than Grice was concerned with—including cases of both showing that and telling that—are understood. The resulting pragmatic theory differs from Grice’s in several respects. It sees explicit communication as much richer and more inferential than Grice thought, with encoded sentence meanings providing no more than clues to the speaker’s intentions. It rejects the close link that Grice saw between implicit communication and (real or apparent) maxim violation, showing in particular how figurative utterances might arise naturally and spontaneously in the course of communication. It offers an account of vagueness or indeterminacy in communication, which is often abstracted away from in more formally oriented frameworks. It investigates the role of context in comprehension, and shows how tentative hypotheses about the intended combination of explicit content, contextual assumptions, and implicatures might be refined and mutually adjusted in the course of the comprehension process in order to satisfy expectations of relevance. Relevance theory treats the borderline between semantics and pragmatics as co-extensive with the borderline between (linguistic) decoding and (pragmatic) inference. It sees encoded sentence meanings as typically fragmentary and incomplete, and as having to undergo inferential enrichment or elaboration in order to yield fully propositional forms. It reanalyzes Grice’s conventional implicatures—which he saw as semantic but non-truth-conditional aspects of the meaning of words like but and so—as encoding procedural information with dedicated pragmatic or more broadly cognitive functions, and extends the notion of procedural meaning to a range of further items such as pronouns, discourse particles, mood indicators, and affective intonation.
Conversational implicatures (i) are implied by the speaker in making an utterance; (ii) are part of the content of the utterance, but (iii) do not contribute to direct (or explicit) utterance content; and (iv) are not encoded by the linguistic meaning of what has been uttered. In (1), Amelia asserts that she is on a diet, and implicates something different: that she is not having cake. (1)Benjamin:Are you having some of this chocolate cake?Amelia:I’m on a diet. Conversational implicatures are a subset of the implications of an utterance: namely those that are part of utterance content. Within the class of conversational implicatures, there are distinctions between particularized and generalized implicatures; implicated premises and implicated conclusions; and weak and strong implicatures. An obvious question is how implicatures are possible: how can a speaker intentionally imply something that is not part of the linguistic meaning of the phrase she utters, and how can her addressee recover that utterance content? Working out what has been implicated is not a matter of deduction, but of inference to the best explanation. What is to be explained is why the speaker has uttered the words that she did, in the way and in the circumstances that she did. Grice proposed that rational talk exchanges are cooperative and are therefore governed by a Cooperative Principle (CP) and conversational maxims: hearers can reasonably assume that rational speakers will attempt to cooperate and that rational cooperative speakers will try to make their contribution truthful, informative, relevant and clear, inter alia, and these expectations therefore guide the interpretation of utterances. On his view, since addressees can infer implicatures, speakers can take advantage of their ability, conveying implicatures by exploiting the maxims. Grice’s theory aimed to show how implicatures could in principle arise. In contrast, work in linguistic pragmatics has attempted to model their actual derivation. Given the need for a cognitively tractable decision procedure, both the neo-Gricean school and work on communication in relevance theory propose a system with fewer principles than Grice’s. Neo-Gricean work attempts to reduce Grice’s array of maxims to just two (Horn) or three (Levinson), while Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory rejects maxims and the CP and proposes that pragmatic inference hinges on a single communicative principle of relevance. Conversational implicatures typically have a number of interesting properties, including calculability, cancelability, nondetachability, and indeterminacy. These properties can be used to investigate whether a putative implicature is correctly identified as such, although none of them provides a fail-safe test. A further test, embedding, has also been prominent in work on implicatures. A number of phenomena that Grice treated as implicatures would now be treated by many as pragmatic enrichment contributing to the proposition expressed. But Grice’s postulation of implicatures was a crucial advance, both for its theoretical unification of apparently diverse types of utterance content and for the attention it drew to pragmatic inference and the division of labor between linguistic semantics and pragmatics in theorizing about verbal communication.
Speech acts are acts that can, but need not, be carried out by saying and meaning that one is doing so. Many view speech acts as the central units of communication, with phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic properties of an utterance serving as ways of identifying whether the speaker is making a promise, a prediction, a statement, or a threat. Some speech acts are momentous, since an appropriate authority can, for instance, declare war or sentence a defendant to prison, by saying that he or she is doing so. Speech acts are typically analyzed into two distinct components: a content dimension (corresponding to what is being said), and a force dimension (corresponding to how what is being said is being expressed). The grammatical mood of the sentence used in a speech act signals, but does not uniquely determine, the force of the speech act being performed. A special type of speech act is the performative, which makes explicit the force of the utterance. Although it has been famously claimed that performatives such as “I promise to be there on time” are neither true nor false, current scholarly consensus rejects this view. The study of so-called infelicities concerns the ways in which speech acts might either be defective (say by being insincere) or fail completely. Recent theorizing about speech acts tends to fall either into conventionalist or intentionalist traditions: the former sees speech acts as analogous to moves in a game, with such acts being governed by rules of the form “doing A counts as doing B”; the latter eschews game-like rules and instead sees speech acts as governed by communicative intentions only. Debate also arises over the extent to which speakers can perform one speech act indirectly by performing another. Skeptics about the frequency of such events contend that many alleged indirect speech acts should be seen instead as expressions of attitudes. New developments in speech act theory also situate them in larger conversational frameworks, such as inquiries, debates, or deliberations made in the course of planning. In addition, recent scholarship has identified a type of oppression against under-represented groups as occurring through “silencing”: a speaker attempts to use a speech act to protect her autonomy, but the putative act fails due to her unjust milieu.