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Review of  Relevance Theory

Reviewer: Stavros Assimakopoulos
Book Title: Relevance Theory
Book Author: Billy Clark
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 25.1502

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One of the latest additions to the ‘Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics’ series, Billy Clark’s ‘Relevance Theory’ is a state-of-the-art overview of the popular cognitive account of pragmatics. In this respect, it aims to serve not only as an accessible introduction for university students with an interest in pragmatics, but also as a useful reference point for researchers familiar with work within the field. This is clearly also mirrored in the structure of the book’s contents: the first four chapters form part of an ‘Overview’ of the main tenets of relevance theory (henceforth RT) against the Gricean background of studying inferential pragmatics, while the latter eight discuss the issues that have so far been in the forefront of the attention of relevance theorists. A useful appendix summarising the key notions of RT is also included at the end.

In the first chapter, Clark sets out to motivate the need for pragmatic analysis, integrating it in the classic sentence-utterance-proposition tripartite distinction. After delineating the domain of enquiry of the framework as that of ostensive communication within the broader picture of human cognition, he offers a number of examples of the classic phenomena that call for an explanation along the lines of inferential pragmatics (e.g. metaphor, irony, non-literalness, misunderstandings, etc.), and wraps up the chapter with a brief outline of the two principles of relevance and the RT comprehension heuristic.

Chapter 2 places RT within the broader picture of Gricean pragmatics, providing a comprehensive exposition of Grice’s argumentation, followed by a presentation of the criticisms that it has received from relevance theorists. This in turn motivates the later overview of the differences between Gricean and RT pragmatics. The chapter concludes with a sketch of Horn’s and Levinson’s neo-Gricean approaches which are, however, not evaluated in the light of RT.

The third chapter expands substantially on the brief outline of the RT framework that was offered towards the end of the first chapter, introducing in more detail the terminology used by relevance theorists and their technical definition of “relevance” as a property of input to mental processing, while also providing the rationale behind the exposition of the two principles of relevance and the RT comprehension heuristic.

In the fourth chapter, which concludes the ‘Overview’ part of the book, Clark takes on the theoretically charged term “inference” with a view to presenting how it is used in RT pragmatics. In this respect, he describes the notions of deductive and non-demonstrative inference, paving the way for the subsequent discussion of the inferences that we spontaneously make in our everyday interactions and the predictions that RT makes with respect to the particular subset of these inferences that pertain to the interpretation of communicative acts.

Chapter 5 deals with the question of which aspects of verbal communication belong to the explicit and which to the implicit side, moving from the Gricean distinction between “what is said” and “what is implicated” to the linguistic underdeterminacy thesis and the notion of “explicature” that follows from it within RT. This notion is then concretised through the discussion of the two pragmatic processes that are taken to contribute to an utterance’s basic explicature for RT; on the one hand, the process of linguistically mandated bottom-up inferential enrichment which is exemplified through the analysis of ambiguity, indexicality and ellipsis as phenomena that give rise to it and on the other, that of top-down free enrichment which is exemplified mainly through the RT treatment of generalised conversational implicatures à la Grice as implicitly communicated aspects of explicatures. The chapter concludes with a brief overview of alternative approaches to the division of labour between explicitly and implicitly communicated meaning.

Chapters 6 and 7 respectively deal with the different types of explicature and implicature that RT has put forth. Apart from suggesting how both explicatures and implicatures can be communicated with more or less strength, in chapter 6, Clark distinguishes between an utterance’s basic explicature and higher-level ones, and in chapter 7, he motivates the RT distinction between implicated premises and implicated conclusions, and describes how their derivation is accounted for within the framework.

Chapter 8 touches on the fairly recent developments in the field of lexical pragmatics and briefly outlines the RT account of “ad hoc concept” construction and the mechanisms of “narrowing” and “broadening” that are put forth in its exposition.

In chapters 9 and 10, Clark turns to figurative language, and more specifically metaphor and irony in turn. Chapter 9 starts with a demonstration of the traditional distinction between literal and non-literal utterances as well as the RT distinction between descriptive and interpretive representations. Then the author presents the Gricean approach to metaphors, contrasting it with both the earlier RT view of metaphor (and hyperbole) as a kind of loose use that conveys an array of weak implicatures, as well as the later one that analyses metaphors (and hyperboles) as communicating ad hoc concepts, which, in this picture, form part of an utterance’s explicature. The subsequent discussion of irony starts off with a description of the treatment of irony as echoic interpretive use within RT, which is then contrasted with the corresponding Gricean and pretence-theoretic analyses. Finally, chapter 10 concludes with a short summary of Happé’s classic study (1993), which vindicates RT’s claim that different levels of metarepresentation are required for the comprehension of metaphor and irony.

The penultimate chapter provides an overview of the account of linguistic semantics that RT assumes, which is largely on a par with the Fodorian picture, and then focuses on the RT notion of “procedural meaning”, discussing how it relates to conceptual meaning as well as how it fares against Grice’s notion of conventional implicature and where it fits in the study of truth conditionality. Then, before eventually turning to the properties that procedural expressions are most likely to have, Clark substantiates, through the use of a set of examples, the RT claim that procedural encodings can act as constraints on both the basic and higher-level explicatures as well as implicatures, much like conceptual meaning can contribute to all three kinds of communicated meaning.

The twelfth and final chapter of the book starts off with a mention of the changes in the framework that were also noted in the ‘Postface’ of the second edition of ‘Relevance’ (Sperber & Wilson 1986/1995) and moves on to explore how pragmatic theory in general (and RT in particular) can both affect and be affected by research based on intuition, corpus analysis, and behavioural experimentation, as well as the analysis of texts and misunderstandings. Clark then turns to briefly suggest how RT can be useful for research pertaining to first and second language acquisition, translation, and evolution, before discussing where the RT account fits in contemporary theorising about the human cognitive system. In the conclusion to the book, he briefly notes how RT has been implemented in other fields of research, such as stylistics, prosody and politeness, and mentions several other accounts with comparable agendas to that of RT, which the reader can refer to in order to develop a more informed understanding of the issues at hand.


The need for a specialised textbook on RT has been long-standing, since, with the exception of a number of short handbook entries (e.g. Wilson & Sperber 2004, Carston & Powell 2005, Yus 2010, Clark 2011, Assimakopoulos forthcoming) and pragmatics textbook chapters that can understandably only cover the basics, an authoritative source that provides a detailed overview of the framework and incorporates the latest advances in the theory has been lacking for quite a while -- the latest such attempt was made over 20 years ago, with the excellent, yet now somewhat out-dated ‘Understanding Utterances’ (Blakemore 1992).

That said, research connecting RT to other fields, such as stylistics, discourse analysis or even anthropology and translation studies has been so prolific that it would have been practically impossible to cover everything that RT has touched on in a single volume. For this reason, Clark’s textbook focuses almost exclusively on what can be considered as the ‘mainstream’ areas of interest for the relevance theorist, and more particularly those issues that are related to the study of linguistic pragmatics. Therefore, students and researchers who have a more peripheral interest in RT are bound to find the ‘Overview’ part more relevant for their purposes, with the latter one being more useful to those working in the field of linguistic pragmatics. That said, what is unfortunately missing from the textbook is a chapter or at least a long section on RT’s alternative to coherence-based accounts of discourse, which has not only been quite influential but has also generated a fair amount of heated debate.

Regardless of these rather understandable limitations, the textbook does the job impressively well. For one, it is surprisingly easy to follow, making quite complex ideas accessible to even absolute beginners through the use of clear language, appropriate examples and comprehension questions/exercises that are wisely interspersed in the text rather than at the end of each chapter. Then, it can also be a valuable source of information even for the more advanced reader, as it summarises research from a variety of sources in a concise manner. To this effect, sections like 2.4 and 2.5, which not only discuss but also motivate RT’s departure from Grice, chapters 9 and 10, which cross-examine the treatment of metaphor and irony in RT and competing accounts, or sections 11.2, 11.3 and 11.4, which outline RT’s view of semantics, can be useful reference points for researchers, who would otherwise need to go through a diverse number of primary sources to get the information therein.

Regarding what I find to be the book’s main shortcomings, I believe that they can both be justified, given the very nature of textbooks as authoritative sources of knowledge in a field or theoretical framework. On the one hand, some of the arguments put forth in RT have been controversial, generating a lot of heated debate, which is sometimes only mentioned quite briefly and not given the attention it deserves. A characteristic example of this would be the implications that RT carries for the delineation of the semantics/pragmatics divide and the criticism it has received from scholars of a more philosophical orientation on these grounds (cf. Cappelen and Lepore 2005, 2007, among quite a few others). On the other hand, there are certain aspects of RT that continue to be researched quite productively. For instance, the ‘ad hoc concept’ account of metaphor that is presented in chapter 9 has been recently challenged and developed further by Carston (2010a, 2010b) and Carston & Wearing (2011), in research that I suspect is not referred to in the textbook as it is still work in progress.

All in all, I find Clark’s ‘Relevance Theory’ to be a very well-informed and well-structured as well as carefully and clearly written textbook on the framework. I would not only use it with even absolute beginners in a course on RT but would also recommend it as a starting point for more advanced readers interested in particular issues in the pragmatics literature.


Assimakopoulos, S. forthcoming. Relevance. In Anne Barron, Gerard Steen & Gu Yueguo (eds.) The Routledge handbook of pragmatics. Oxon: Routledge.

Blakemore, Diane. 1992. Understanding utterances. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cappelen, Herman & Ernie Lepore. 2005. Insensitive semantics: A defense of semantic minimalism and speech act pluralism. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cappelen, Herman & Ernie Lepore. 2007. Relevance theory and shared content. In Noel Burton-Roberts (ed.), Pragmatics, 115-135. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Carston, Robyn. 2010a. Metaphor: Ad hoc concepts, literal meaning and mental images. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 110(3). 295-321.

Carston, Robyn. 2010b. Lexical pragmatics, ad hoc concepts and metaphor: From a relevance theory perspective. Rivista di Linguistica 22(1). 153-180.

Carston, Robyn & George Powell. 2005. Relevance theory: New directions and developments. In Ernest Lepore & Barry C. Smith (eds.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy of language, 341-360. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carston, Robyn & Catherine Wearing. 2011. Metaphor, hyperbole and simile: A pragmatic approach. Language and Cognition 3(2). 283-312.

Clark, Billy. 2011. Recent developments in relevance theory. In Dawn Archer & Peter Grundy (eds.), The pragmatics reader, 129-137. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.

Happé, Francesca. 1993. Communicative competence and theory of mind in autism: A test of relevance theory. Cognition 48(2). 101-119.

Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson. 1986/1995. Relevance: Communication and cognition. Oxford: Blackwell. (2nd edition with postface, 1995.)

Wilson, Deirdre & Dan Sperber. 2004. Relevance theory. In Laurence Horn & Gregory Ward (eds.), Handbook of pragmatics, 607-632. Oxford: Blackwell.

Yus, Francisco. 2010. Relevance theory. In Bernd Heine & Heiko Narrog (eds.), The Oxford handbook of linguistic analysis, 679-701. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
After his PhD in theoretical pragmatics at the University of Edinburgh and a postdoctoral appointment in philosophy at the University of Granada, Stavros Assimakopoulos is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Linguistics of the University of Malta. His research lies in the interface of linguistics, philosophy and cognitive psychology and mainly focuses on the implications that cognitive approaches to inferential pragmatics, such as the one offered by Relevance Theory, carry for the study of linguistic meaning.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780521702416
Pages: 414
Prices: U.S. $ 38.99

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780521878203
Pages: 414
Prices: U.S. $ 99.00