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Beyond Grice:

A socio-pragmatic framework for non-entailed meaning1

Eric Acton
Eastern Michigan University

I have stated my maxims as if [the chief purpose of conversation] were a maximally

effective exchange of information; this specification is, of course, too narrow, and the
scheme needs to be generalized [. . . ]

Grice (1975: 47). “Logic and conversation.”

1 Prelude: An autobiography - OR - Ode to Penny and Chris

• 1982: born 14 June (9lbs., 10oz.) St. Ann’s hospital, Columbus, OH (first word: implicature)

• 1988: Learned to ride a bike with no training wheels

• 2009: Enrolled in graduate school in linguistics, seeking to “bring together semantics and
sociolinguistics.” Advisors:

– Eckert: Variation and social meaning are inextricably linked! (e.g. Eckert 2005, 2008)
– Potts: Look for pragmatic sources of social meaning! (e.g. Davis & Potts 2010; Potts

• 2010: Invited by Potts to collaborate on project linking the social meaning of demonstratives
to their semantics; took “Analysis of Variation” with Eckert

• 2011 - : Marriage, employment, etc.

2 Introduction
• Both (Neo-)Gricean pragmatics and meaning-based sociolinguistics recognize that non-entailed
content is a vast and essential component of linguistic meaning

• Both have uncovered and illuminated a wide range of phenomena (see e.g. Labov 1963;
Grice 1975; Horn 1984; Levinson 2000; Benor 2001; Campbell-Kibler 2007; Potts 2011)
1 Many thanks to, among others: Penny Eckert, Chris Potts, Daniel Seely, the Stanford Semantics and Pragmatics
Group, the Stanford Socio Group, and audiences at SUNY Buffalo, the University of Pittsburgh, Eastern Michigan
University, the University of Michigan, and the Redrawing Pragmasemantic Borders conference for their insights,
questions, and critiques in the ongoing development of this line of research.

• Still, a vast swath of non-entailed content remains under-explored or under-explained (though
we are very much making progress!)

• Goals:
1. Present a generalized socio-pragmatic framework that addresses this gap—retaining
the insights of prior approaches and expanding their empirical reach

2. Put it to work

First, an example. . .

3 An example: That one

• The Scene: 2008 Town Hall U.S. Presidential Debate – John McCain and Barack Obama

• On the matter of Obama’s voting record, McCain said of a particular bill:

(1) It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate – loaded down with goodies, billions
for the oil companies – and it was sponsored by [Republicans] Bush and Cheney.
You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one [pointing to Obama].

• Reactions suggest an (negative) expressive meaning to McCain’s utterance:

– “Senator Obama has a name. You’d expect your opponent to use that name.”
- Obama strategist David Axelrod

– “. . . [a] slightly dehumanizing phrase. . . ”

- Seth Colter Walls, Huffington Post

– “You are trying to be the president of the United States, and you’re referring to another
man as ‘that one’?”
- P. Diddy

• Of course, that one does not entail a view of its referent as subhuman or “Other.” Consider:

(2) [Two adults watching small children playing on a playground]

A: They sure are adorable – and full of energy! Do you have kids of your own?
B: [smiling] That one there in the little blue jumper is my Annie.

• So, it’s not an entailment. Whence cometh this meaning?

4 Steps in the right direction
• Appealing to Grice

– This example has the feel of Gricean implicature. But Grice’s formulation of implica-
ture doesn’t get us to the meaning of interest:
* That one doesn’t run afoul of any of Grice’s maxims – it’s relevant, informative,
true, concise, orderly, and clear.

* No reason, then, to seek an implicatum.

• Appealing to Neo-Grice

– Horn’s (1984: 22) Division of pragmatic labor (DPL):

The use of a marked (relatively complex and/or prolix) expression when a corre-
sponding unmarked (simpler, less ‘effortful’) alternate expression is available tends
to be interpreted as conveying a marked message (one which the unmarked alternative
would not or could not have conveyed).

– Levinson’s (2000: 38) M Heuristic: “What’s said in an abnormal way isn’t normal.”
Tied “directly to Grice’s maxim of Manner (‘Be perspicuous’), specifically to his first
submaxim ‘avoid obscurity of expression’ and his fourth ‘avoid prolixity.’”

– These principles/heuristics help make sense of examples like the following. (Why use
a clunky periphrastic if Lee’s car-stopping was prototypical?)

(3) a. Lee stopped the car. Horn (1984: (29a))

b. Lee got the car to stop. Horn (1984: (29b))

– Alas, as stated, they’re only so helpful for us: that one isn’t particularly “complex,”
“prolix,” or “obscure”. . .

– A partial fix: On a broader reading of marked/abnormal, they take us part of the way!
* Though he focuses on cases of prolixity/complexity, in deriving DPL Horn does
speak of a “marked expression E’” as one “containing ‘extra’ material (or [being]
otherwise less basic in form or distribution)” (Horn 1984: 22; emphasis added).

* That one, in the present context, does qualify as marked in that parenthetical sense.

* So, on a broad enough interpretation of Horn and of Levinson, we should not be

surprised that that one was ascribed special significance.

Still, issues remain:

1. Why the particular interpretations ascribed to that one?

2. Beyond that one, (Neo-)Gricean research on non-entailed meaning tends to focus

on enrichments of at-issue content (e.g. scalar implicature, (3))

3. Also, what about connotative/associative meaning?

• Appealing to sociolinguistics
– Sociolinguistics, too, has long-recognized meaning beyond the entailed, with a special
emphasis on socially expressive meaning.

– Focus has been primarily on indexical meaning—i.e., the associations of a given form—
and its relation to variation (e.g. Eckert 2008).
A sketch:

* Forms take on associations concerning speakers’ moods, stances, personal histo-

ries, etc. based on who uses them and under what circumstances.

* These associations may then be leveraged to send social signals.

* E.g. Martha’s Vineyard (Labov, 1963)

Centralized variant of /aI/, associated with traditional fishing community on the
island, was giving way to mainland pronunciation. Young men began revitalizing
the older variant to signal island-authenticity and opposition to mainland.

– Many insights into how associations and ideologies are formed and transformed.

– That one likely does carry certain associations important to its interpretation.
But the dynamics behind its associations are different—they depend crucially
on semantics (unlike, say, the phonetic realization of /aI/ or -ing)

– Thus, an account of that one based strictly on indexicality—roughly, that one had the
relevant interpretation simply because of associations with prior uses of the phrase—
leaves certain insights uncovered.

– Of course, indexicality does matter! And meaning-based sociolinguistics—rooted in

variation and the social—offers an appreciation for and insights into non-entailed social

meaning and the profound role of context and ideology in interpretation.

– Upshot: Existing meaning-based approaches to sociolinguistics have much to offer

here, but don’t tell the full story either.

What to do?

5 The Solution: A Socio-Pragmatic Framework

• Underlying assumptions

Language users:

1. Speak in service of their goals, of which the exchange of information is but one.
(Firth, 1966; Grice, 1975; Romaine, 1984; Keller, 1994; Traugott, 2011; Smith, 2016)
2. Eagerly seek to explain and interpret stimuli, appealing to reason and context.
(Levinson, 1983; Horn, 1984)
3. Have context-sensitive expectations about what makes for a normal/appropriate utter-
ance on a given occasion of use.
(Grice, 1975; Horn, 1984; Brown & Levinson, 1987; Keller, 1994; Traugott, 2011)

• An informal def.: the charactera of an expression consists in its semantic character (à la
Kaplan 1989) and its profile of associations (à la Eckert’s 2008 indexical fields)

• Three principles:

1. VE Principle: When a (sub-)utterance violates (or, if taken at face value, would vi-
olate) a hearer’s expectations for what a normal or appropriate utterance would have
looked like in the context, the hearer is likely to attach special significance to it (i.e.,
significance beyond its entailments).
– Inherent in Grice (1975); reflected in his Cooperative Principle and maxims.

– In essence a broadening of Horn’s (1984) DPL or Levinson’s (2000) M heuristic.

2. FS Principle: The full significance of a (sub-)utterance u depends upon context and

what makes u distinctive relative to contextually relevant alternatives.
– Along with DW Principle, sheds light on why that one was interpreted not only as
having special significance, but as having special significance of a particular kind.

– Gricean “pragmatic alternatives” or “pragmatic competitors.”

– Importantly, the relevant comparison-class is context dependent.

3. DW Principle: The weight of a given alternative in understanding the full significance

of a (sub-)utterance varies directly with how well it accords with conversational expec-
tations and how closely related it is to the actual utterance.

This framework extends the reach of Grice’s central insights—generalizing beyond his
maxims, incorporating associations/connotations, and underscoring the role of ideology
and the social.

6 Explaining that one

• The Context: A few noteworthy features:

– The situation was a debate between opponents

– Repeatedly emphasized social differences between the candidates:

* Obama: young, first black presidential candidate from a major U.S. political party
* McCain: older, white, long-time politician

– Narrow, well established conventions for referring to one’s opponent: proper names
(typically with titles), gendered pronouns, a few stock expressions (e.g. my opponent).

(4) Some leading contenders: he/him, (Senator) Obama, my opponent

• Deriving the meaning:

– VE Principle predicts that that one would be ascribed special significance.

– FS Principle states that that significance depends crucially on what distinguishes that
one from contextually relevant alternatives.
What distinguishes that one from those in (4)?

1. Furthest removed from acknowledging Obama’s personhood—associations and

lexical entailments dictate that anything called by any of those terms is (nearly)
always human or a personified entity.

2. Only that one employs that, which foregrounds the notion of distance between
speaker and demonstratum.

In brief: relative to the alternatives, that one downplays Obama’s personhood and
plays up his distance from McCain.

This competition with relevant alternatives, together with the adversarial nature of de-
bates, the broader black-white, insider-outsider discourse, and an ideological link be-
tween distance and differentiation, explains reactions to McCain’s utterance as e.g.

• There is, of course, inter-hearer variation in interpretations of that one: some compared it to
referring to “an annoying child,” others said any disrespect was probably unintentional, etc.

– This is to be expected under the present framework: just as expectations, beliefs, atten-
tion, ideologies, and personal histories vary from one person to the next, so, too, does

– Still, we have principled predictions: we have a reason for why people read into Mc-
Cain’s utterance, and why the kinds of inferences drawn were what they were

– Note: no one commented, for instance, that McCain’s utterance downplayed the fact
that Obama is trim.
Why? A phrase like the slender fellow to my right, though certainly not ruled
out entirely as a possible alternative, would, in the main, get far less weight
in the interpretation of that one than the other terms in (4) by the DW Prin-
ciple: it’s wordier and less frequent and it highlights a feature of Obama not
especially germane to the discourse at hand.

• In brief: Reasoning over contextual considerations and what sets that one apart from related
alternatives yields the interpretation of interest.

7 Beyond that one

• Scalar implicature

(5) A: How was the movie?

B: It was good.
Meaning: the movie was good, but not great/excellent

– Sketch of the standard account:

* Semantically, good isn’t informative enough (violates Quantity)

* To maintain the belief that B is being cooperative, we assume that B means good
but not as good as would be entailed by more informative terms like great.

– The present account is the same in spirit:
* If good is semantically under-informative, its use would appear to violate conver-
sational expectations, thus warranting special significance (VE Principle)

* By the FS Principle, the full significance depends on what sets the (sub-)utterance
apart from relevant alternatives (e.g. great, excellent, perhaps also bad, terrible.)

* What sets good apart from all of these other expressions is that portion of the
goodness scale corresponding to “good but not great”—i.e., the only portion of the
scale unique to good.

• Another case of social meaning: The Xs vs. Xs.

– The phenomenon: Relative to a bare plural (“Americans”) using a the-headed plural

(“the Americans”) to make a general statement about a group tends to depict that group
as a monolith of which the speaker is not a part:

(6) [At my Canadian in-laws’]

Mother-in-law: You’re eating a Big Mac for breakfast?
Eric: What can I say? (? The) Americans love fast food!

– The short explanation:

* Bare plurals are the default way of talking about a group in general

* Use of the less expected the form thus invites an inference (VE Principle)

* The form stands in closer competition with other context-bound, individual-concept-

denoting terms, including first-person forms.

* Suggests that the speaker is a non-member, or at least downplays membership

– Quantitative evidence (Acton, 2014):2

Party Dem the-% Rep the-% Dem N Rep N

Democrats 30.4% 54.4% 11,352 18,992
Republicans 53.3% 26.1% 13,007 11,042

Table 1: The-%s for U.S. House members, aggregated by party.

– Note: Associations do matter! Consider: the gays, the blacks

* Sound particularly derogatory
2 Raw data from Djalali’s (2013) House Proceedings Corpus.

* Cannot simply derive this degree of pejoration from reasoning over semantic char-
acter (compare with the Ohioans)

* Instead, depends in part on their having been used frequently in statements of

othering and marginalization (compare with the Ohioans.)

• Other examples:
– the wife (compare with my wife—also your son v. our son)

– Social meaning of demonstratives (Acton & Potts, 2011; Acton, 2014; Acton & Potts,

– Sociophonetic evidence of the VE Principle: Pronounced social significance found

where a particular phonetic realization is unexpected (see Eckert 2008). Examples:
/t/-release (Bucholtz, 2001); -ing (Campbell-Kibler, 2007); creaky voice

– Beltrama (2016); Glass (2016)

8 Conclusion
• The Gist (a reprise): (1) Utterances violating conversational expectations are especially
likely to be ascribed significance beyond their entailments; (2) the full significance of an
utterance depends upon context and what distinguishes it from competing alternative utter-
ances (including associations!); (3) especially those that are similar to the actual utterance
and/or coincide with expectations.

• Concluding thoughts:
1. This framework offers testable predictions.

2. Research into indexicality is essential. The framework tells us not what associations
and connotations are like (their ontology, dynamism, etc.), but rather how they figure
into interpreting utterances, and, in some cases, helps predict what kind of associations
a particular form may take on.

3. Finally, echoing Grice (1975: 47)—“[. . . ] [O]ne of my avowed aims is to see talking
as a special case or variety of purposive, indeed rational, behavior”—I want to suggest
that our collective work on these phenomena presents another example of the study of
language yielding insights into human nature more generally. In this case, I submit that
this particular framework applies not only to the interpretation of linguistic signals, but
to that of a broader range of human actions.
– Do we not apply the same principles, for instance, in drawing inferences based on
what people wear?

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9 Appendix

Contextually Locating Accessibility Anim. Gender Agent Addressee(s)

Determined Parameter Feature Feature Feature as Index as Index
the + NP

pr. names

it/they X

that/those X X

this/these X X X

she/he X X X

I/we X X X

you X X X

Table 2: Semantic features of expressions with primarily definite uses. (Acton, 2014)