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Review of  Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature

Reviewer: Mayumi Masuko
Book Title: Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature
Book Author: Stephen Curtis Levinson
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 12.1678

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Levinson, Stephen C. (2000) Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of
Generalized Conversational Implicature, MIT Press, paperback,
xxiii+480 pp., A Bradford Book

Mayumi Masuko, School of Commerce, Waseda University

Since the first reviewer of this book, by Bert Bultinck
(, provided an excellent
summary, I do not include one here. My conclusion
is practically the same as that of Bultinck, although my reasons
naturally differ from his. In what follows, I shall try to present
them as succinctly as possible.

This is a fairly comprehensive survey of Gricean pragmatics.
Being an unorthodox, Levinson provides summaries of alternative
accounts, and thus the book functions as a sort of encyclopaedia
which can be used as an extensive source for researchers
(including postgraduate students) who wish to do further work
in this area. While such an effort is admirable especially in
pragmatics, the area I suspect has not progressed as much in the
last twenty years or so as in syntax or formal semantics, there
are some problems. I shall address three.

One problem concerns Levinson's choice of examples. Firstly, as
pointed out by Bultinck, he spends too much time on the numerals
as the prime example of Generalized Conversational Implicatures
(GCIs), even though he notes that they are "NOT the correct
testbed for the whole theory of scalar implicature" (p.90: the
emphasis italics in the original). Personally, I find the
argument rather counter-intuitive, the examples rather
convoluted and their repetition rather otiose. Even more
unfortunate, however, is the inclusion of the ordered pair
<bitch, dog> whose behaviour, according to Levinson, is analogous
to that of Horn scales. "<thumb, finger> and <bitch, dog> form
ordered pairs where the first member entails the second in a
suitable sentence frame, and the use of the second member thus
implicates that the speaker is not in a position to assert that
the stronger expression holds (hence "I cut my finger" suggests
the speaker knows he did not cut a thumb)" (p.103). It is not
clear to me at all what this "suitable sentence frame" might be,
but I would have thought that many people will avoid "bitch" and
opt for "dog" in many utterances. Bultinck blames Levinson's
theory for its "logic-inspired meanings"; as long as it only
considers prepositional meanings, it will fail to provide a
satisfactory account of either pragmatic inference or pronominal

Another drawback is the age-old problem: the semantics-
pragmatics distinction. Bultinck points out that although
Levinson argues against the Fodorian modular approach (cf. Fodor
1983), he still maintains that "semantics and pragmatics are
distinct domains, which operate on specific, domain-exclusive
principles, even though they are "interleaved" (p.187)."
Levinson claims at one point that pragmatics concerns itself with
nonmonotonic reasoning whereas semantics concerns itself with
monotonic; in other places, however, he states that "[p]ragmatics
too encompasses more than one process: on the one hand, default
inferences can be calculated on the fly, given fragments of
semantic representation; on the other hand, further pragmatic
inferences (of both a specific and default character) can be
calculated given the results of semantic interpretation"
(p.168). By a "specific character" he may mean particularized
as opposed to generalized conversational implicature, but his
phrasing does not make it clear. If he in fact means non-default,
then the distinction becomes vacuous.

This relates to another, potentially more critical, issue: lack
of precision. Levinson criticizes Hirschberg's (1985) account
of scalar implicatures for overgeneration: there do not seem to
be any constraints in her theory and any groups of words can
potentially form scales. His own account, however, seems also
liable to overgenerate, for the lexicalization constraint that
was originally proposed by Atlas and Levinson (1981) and is
repeatedly mentioned in this book wouldn't do as the restrictive
condition as he admits in a footnote (n.49, p.392).

One recurring criticism of Relevance Theory, Levinson's main
adversary , is that it has never been formalized and thus is not
clear what it actually maintains. It can be inferred that Levinson
will have formalized his theory, but I am not sure if that is
the case. Despite his claim that GCIs are default
interpretations, he rejects default logics as an appropriate
formal tool, saying that "they may seem to have little to offer
a general theory of implicature because they provide a restricted
set of limited inference rules, incapable of modeling the
open-ended, creative, and indefinite set of inferences that come
under Grice's theory" (p.46). But then he dithers: "[h]owever,
as an account of the inference of GCIs, just those implicature
that seem to have the default property, they may indeed have
something to offer" (p.46). So do not all implicatures "have the
default property", then? Which ones do and which ones do not,
we are not told, though it can be inferred that GCIs (and
presumably conversational implicatures, though that is not clear
as Levinson does not discuss them at all) do and particularized
conversational implicatures (PCIs) don't. But then are PCIs
non-default and hence monotonic inferences?

Does that mean a theory of GCIs can be formalized by using one
(or more) of default logics? Well, maybe but maybe not. Since
Levinson announces that "perhaps this account of pragmatic
inference as based on stable heuristics is all we need to give
an account of this species of defeasible inferences. There is
no need for a nonmonotonic logic to model GCIs, it might be
claimed, because GCIs are simply instantiations of
communicational heuristics and indeed prototype default
inferences" (p. 54). He then cites Johnson-Laird's (1983)
argument that formal deduction is not necessary to model
properties of human deduction, and suggests that the same holds
true with nonmonotonic reasoning by humans. Perhaps, but what
exactly are "stable heuristics"? Are they so "stable" that they
apply regularly? If so, how do they differ from plain rules or
principles? He even alludes to the supposedly formal
characteristic of these heuristics: they are "mutually assumed
by sender and receiver, that can serve to multiply the coded
information by a factor of, say, three, by licensing inferential
enrichment of what is actually encoded by choice of a specific
signal" (p.30). But how could he assume that the "heuristics"
are shared and justify "a factor of, say, three"? As he provides
no evidence for neither, I see no reason to accept either of his

Levinson suggests further that "rather than seek understanding
of implicature in theories of default inference, perhaps we
should instead think of generalized implicatures as the prototype
of default inferences" (p.49). Perhaps, but are they? Since no
clear evidence is provided to prove that indeed is the case, I
see no reason to think that is so. And since he goes on to claim
that "�c because the inferences are defeated by recognition of
a goal and because THAT kind of defeasibility is precisely what
practical reasoning systems are set up to capture perhaps these
examples are indications that the plan-generation and plan-
recognition types of nonmonotonic inferences are what are really
involved in implicature generation" (pp.52-53). Perhaps, but
perhaps not: we never know where he stands. This echoes Bultinck's
observation that Grice's original account is falsifiable:
Levinson's theory as it stands appears falsifiable because we
do not really know exactly what claims it makes.

The title of the book itself begs the question: 'presumptive
meanings' on the basis of what? Levinson also talks about
'preferred interpretations' without explicating 'by whom'.
'Default interpretation' is the term also used interchangeably
with these two, and again it is not clear when default does not
hold. I suspect that the ceteris paribus part, which is inherent
in any discussion of default and probably implicature in
Levinson's theory, is unproblematic in morphology but not so in
pragmatics. That is precisely why the AI local pragmatics (cf.
Hobbs et al. 1990), which Levinson disputes, explicitly declares
in the system what assumptions are made and shared between the
speaker and the addressee: what counts as mutual knowledge or
common ground depends at least on the identity of the speaker
and the addressee and context.

To recap, this book is an encyclopedic survey of a certain kind
of pragmatic inference that the author argues shows clear
evidence for the existence of utterance-type meanings: it is an
excellent source book from which the interested reader can obtain
data and references to work on. Nevertheless, in view of issues
that remain to be solved, it may be appropriate to end this review
by citing Wilks (1986:276), which was an argument against
Relevance Theory. This is because although Levinson (pp.26-27)
denies the charge, since he never explicates the ceteris paribus
part of the theory and just assumes that it is shared between
the speaker and the addressee, I suspect it applies to his theory
as well. I hope it has become clear by now that though my
conclusion is virtually the same as Bultinck's, I do not accept
his claim that "meanings can be more or less conventional, or
more or less context-independent, not semantic or pragmatic".
Linguistic meanings are conventionalized in the sense that they
are conveyed by certain grammatical constructions or lexical
items but they are largely context-dependent. And that is
precisely why accounts of linguistic meaning that are free of
any discoursal and/or contextual issues will be deemed

"[Sperber and Wilson's (1982)] errors all stem from their
conviction that there is an objectively "right" context set of
propositions, one that can be assumed independently of how it
is located, and independently of what individuals may in fact

A bibliographical note

I would not recommend this book to undergraduates who do not know
much about the background. Levinson (1983) provides the minimum
required to understand the issues discussed, though it would be
desirable to read Grice (1989) and Gazdar (1979), which inspired
Levinson (2000). I heard, however, the latter is out of print,
and if it cannot be found in libraries, Levinson (1983) or Soames
(1982) provides the necessary background information.

For those who find 480 pages too long, Levinson (1987a and 1987b)
will give the gist of the discussion and enough examples to
understand his arguments. As for its main antagonist, Relevance
Theory, Sperber and Wilson (1986), or the second edition of the
book, which I have not read, still remains the main source. For
those who prefer shorter accounts, read Sperber and Wilson
(1982), which I believe gives the gist of the argument. For its
critical analysis, there's Gazdar and Good (1982), to whose
argument, as far as I am aware, neither Sperber nor Wilson has
answered. If neither of these proves inaccessible, read Wilks


Atlas, Jay and Stephen C. Levinson (1981) "It-clefts,
informativeness, and logical form: Radical pragmatics (revised
standard version)", in P. Cole (ed.), Radical Pragmatics,
Academic Press, 1-61.

Fodor, Jerry (1983) The Modularity of the Mind, MIT Press.

Gazdar, Gerald (1979) Pragmatics: Implicature, Presupposition,
and Logical Form, Academic Press.

Gazdar, Gerald and David Good (1982) "On a notion of relevance:
Comments on Sperber and Wilson's paper". In Smith (1982:88-100).

Grice, H. Paul (1989) Studies in the Way of Words, Harvard
University Press.

Hirschberg, Julia (1985) A Theory of Scalar Implicature. PhD
dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Hobbs, Jerry, M. Stickel, D. Appelt and P. Martin (1990)
Interpretations as Abduction. Technical Note 499, SRI

Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1983) Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive
Science of Language, Inference and Consciousness, Cambridge
University Press.

Levinson, Stephen C. (1983) Pragmatics, Cambridge University

Levinson, Stephen C. (1987a) "Minimization and conversational
inference". In J. Verschueren and M. Bertuccelli-Papi (eds.),
The Pragmatic Perspective, John Benjamins, 61-129.

Levinson, Stephen C. (1987b) "Pragmatics and the grammar of
anaphora", Journal of Linguistics 23:379-434.

Smith, Neil (ed.) (1982) Mutual Knowledge, Academic Press.

Soames, Scott (1982) "How presuppositions are inherited: A
solution to the projection problem", Linguistic Inquiry

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson (1982) "Mutual relevance and
knowledge in
theories of comprehension". In Smith (1982:).

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson (1986) Relevance, Blackwell.

Wilks, Yorick (1986) "Relevance and beliefs". In Myers, Terry,
Keith Brown and Brendan McGonigle (eds.), Reasoning and Discourse
Processes, Academic Press, 265-289.

About the reviewer:
Mayumi Masuko did her postgraduate studies at the University of
Cambridge, where she received an MPhil and a PhD in linguistics.
She is an Associated Professor of English at Waseda University,
where she teaches English and linguistics. Her main research
interest lies in the interaction between semantics (broadly
conceived) and morphosyntax.


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