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Review of  Quantity Implicatures

Reviewer: Katja Jasinskaja
Book Title: Quantity Implicatures
Book Author: Bart Geurts
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 22.3291

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AUTHOR: Geurts, Bart
TITLE: Quantity Implicatures
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2010

Katja Jasinskaja, Centre for General Linguistics (ZAS), Berlin


This book presents a comprehensive discussion of quantity implicatures, which
are a family of pragmatic inferences that, in the pioneering work of Paul Grice,
were analysed as resulting from the assumption that participants in a
conversation observe the Maxim of Quantity, i.e. provide as much (relevant)
information as they can (without lying, making unwarranted statements, etc.) The
book covers all the standard varieties of quantity implicature, including scalar
implicature, exhaustivity, and conditional perfection. It also covers free
choice inferences, which the author shows to follow the same pattern of
reasoning. Since Grice's original proposal, the same class of phenomena received
a large number of alternative analyses, including lexicalist, syntactic and
semantic accounts, as well as pragmatic accounts in other flavours. This book
presents a vigorous defence of a radical pragmatic view on the matter and argues
essentially for ''a return to Grice'' - in spirit, if not in letter. One part of
the argument is based on considerations of theoretical parsimony: if it is
possible to account for some part of content conveyed by natural language
sentences as an inference based on general assumptions of human rationality and
cooperativity, rather than making additional stipulations in the grammar or the
lexicon, then one ought to do so. The second part of the argument consists of
showing that many phenomena related to quantity implicatures that were believed
to resist a Gricean account can in fact be given one, if a number of details in
the Gricean picture are set straight. The book culminates in a thorough
discussion of one such phenomenon, the so-called embedded implicatures, i.e.
cases where it looks as if a quantity-based inference takes place in the scope
of some operator in the sentence.

Apart from a short introduction and afterword, the book consists of eight
chapters. The first five lay out the foundations of the author's version of
Gricean pragmatics, positioning it among previous proposals of both Grice
himself and others, and addressing some fundamental issues and criticisms of the
framework. Chapter 1 presents the main concepts introduced by Grice, marking the
points in which the author endorses or deviates from the orthodox picture.
Chapter 2 introduces what the author calls the ''Standard Recipe'': a pattern of
reasoning standardly assumed to be the Gricean solution to quantity
implicatures, which largely amounts to the exclusion of more informative
alternative statements the speaker could have made but didn't. The author
emphasises that many misconceptions about what Gricean pragmatics can and cannot
do result from overlooking two points: first, that the standard recipe is a form
of abductive reasoning (reasoning to the best explanation) and not a logical
calculus, and second, that a sharp distinction should be drawn between weak and
strong implicatures (i.e. inferences to the effect that the speaker does not
believe P vs. that he/she believes not P). The latter follows the derivation of
the former on the assumption that the speaker is competent. Chapter 3 focuses on
scalar implicatures, which are best known to bear suspicious resemblance to
inferences triggered by specific lexical items (e.g. some, or, warm, etc.) and
have been the main source of inspiration for lexicalist accounts. Chapter 4
replies to charges of psychological inadequacy frequently put forward against
Gricean pragmatics. The author brings experimental evidence from published
psycholinguistic, psychological, and brain studies in defence of the Gricean
theory as a theory of experimental pragmatics. Finally, Chapter 5 goes back to
scalar inferences and summarises existing experimental evidence that opposes the
view that scalar inferences are lexically triggered defaults.

The last three chapters of the book go into a detailed discussion of a range of
phenomena that the author argues to belong to the class of quantity
implicatures. Some of these phenomena have been traditionally seen as
problematic for the Gricean theory, most notably free choice inferences and
embedded implicatures. The author fleshes out his version of Gricean pragmatics
and puts it to the test on these phenomena. Chapter 6 argues for an
''intentionalist turn'' in Gricean reasoning. That is, instead of reasoning
directly with alternative statements (as one would do according to the ''standard
recipe''), one reasons with hypotheses about alternative possible ''states of
mind'' of the speaker, and excludes such hypotheses if the respective state of
mind would make the speaker utter something different from what he/she did. One
of the advantages of this approach is that it does not generate inferences that
are inconsistent with the propositional content of the sentence ('what is said')
since the latter functions as a constraint on the speaker's possible state of
mind. This problem arises with free choice inferences under the ''standard
recipe'' reasoning pattern, but disappears on the intentionalist view, as the
author demonstrates. The approach is further applied to varieties of quantity
implicature that typically involve an indefinite number of alternative
statements - exhaustivity and conditional perfection - for which it seems to
account in a computationally more viable way. Chapters 7 and 8 deal with
embedded implicatures. Chapter 7 is a crusade against all kinds of non-pragmatic
(i.e. lexicalist or syntactic), or as the author labels them, 'conventionalist',
accounts of this class of phenomena. One part of the argument concerns cases
where conventionalist theories fail to make any predictions: (a) weak
implicatures (see above); and (b) inferences at a level higher than a single
sentence, or discourse-level implicatures. The latter are unproblematic for the
Gricean theory, since it works with speech acts, which can be complex and
consist of other speech acts. The second part of the argument concerns false
predictions of conventionalist approaches, or cases where embedded implicatures
are predicted to appear but don't. The main source of evidence is the much
debated experimental study of Geurts and Pouscoulous (2009a), which finds
strikingly low numbers of embedded implicatures in intensional and
quantificational contexts. Finally, Chapter 8 presents the positive part of the
proposal. The problematic facts related to embedded implicature are divided into
two groups. For the first group, which includes disjunctions, sentences with
indefinites, belief reports and factive predicates, the author develops analyses
that derive what looks like an embedded implicature by purely Gricean means
without postulating an ''implicature operator'' in the sentence structure. The
second group is embedded implicatures in contrastive contexts. The author argues
that these cases do involve local pragmatic strengthening of the literal meaning
of subsentential linguistic expressions, but these inferences are exceptional in
many respects and are not implicatures in the author's terminology, even though
reasoning with Gricean principles plays a role in their derivation as well.

The main conclusion of the book is that after some amendments to the Gricean
theory of pragmatics, there is no need to relegate the phenomena studied in this
book to the domain of linguistic convention, and since considerations of
theoretical parsimony put the Gricean approach at an advantage from the start,
the odds are in Grice's favour.


This book is excellent. This applies to both presentation and content.

The problems, the positions, and the arguments are brilliantly presented, in a
clear, step-by-step fashion that is easy to follow. The book is not long - just
above 200 pages - yet the author succeeds in saying a lot within that limited
space. The presentation is dense, but not too dense in the sense that one has to
reflect on every word in order to understand the content. It is more like every
page is worth reading. The chapters are proportionally short, so the information
is cut up into very manageable pieces.

The book is written for a broad audience of philosophers, linguists and
psychologists with even minimal exposure to logic and formal languages. One
encounters an occasional phi and psi, but not a single ''difficult'' formula. At
the same time, all the assumptions and inference steps are stated in a very
systematic and explicit way, so one gets the impression that formalising the
proposed approach should not be that difficult. For this reason, I think the
book is very suitable for students as an introduction to Gricean implicatures
(that is, not counting the fact that it is not ideologically unbiased). I would
definitely recommend Chapter 2 as preparatory reading for a class on
conversational implicature. Finally, the text is also sprinkled with sardonic
humour, mostly directed at the author's theoretical opponents, which gives the
discussion at times a somewhat polemic tone, but makes it a joy to read.

Concerning content, I think the book is a significant contribution to pragmatic
theory. In terms of data coverage, it is an improvement on Grice, and in terms
of beauty and simplicity (largely due to the recognition of Grice's original
ideas), it is an improvement on most theoretical work in linguistic pragmatics
of the last decades. The book presents serious discussion of some burning issues
in the field, which also means that the author's proposals are far from
uncontroversial. The most central theme of the book, embedded implicatures, is a
battlefield a civilian shall not enter without a bulletproof vest. Therefore, I
will refrain from a critical evaluation of this part of the book and point to
the lively discussion in the field's leading journals and elsewhere, featuring
Chemla (2009), Geurts & Pouscoulous (2009b), Sauerland (2010), Ippolito (2010),
Clifton & Dube (2010), Chemla & Spector (2011), Geurts (2011), and Gajewski and
Sharvit (2011) (not to imply that the list is exhaustive).

Instead of commenting on what everyone is commenting on, I will make some
remarks on issues that tend to attract less attention. One of the arguments
against ''implicature operators'' in the sentence structure put forward in the
book (see pp. 23-24 and 154) is the observation that sequences of more than one
sentence seem to give rise to implicatures in exactly the same way as single
sentences do. I agree with the basic intuition, and it is high time to raise the
issue. However, I am not convinced that applying Gricean reasoning to
suprasentential units is the only way to capture these intuitions. Just like
embedded implicatures in the author's proposal, a large class of discourse-level
quantity implicatures might be reducible to the sum of sentence-level
implicatures under a number of additional (but independently motivated)
assumptions. In example (54) from Chapter 7, the intuition that this discourse,
when used as an answer to the question, ''Which places did you see on your trip
to Italy?'', implicates that the speaker didn't see other places in Italy except
Naples, Rome, and Ravenna could be explained by the following line of reasoning:
The speaker divides the question explicitly asked into two implicit
subquestions; ''Which places did you see with Julius?'' and ''Which places did you
see without Julius?''. The first sentence answers the first subquestion and
implicates that the speaker didn't see, let's say, Venice with Julius.
Similarly, the second sentence implicates that the speaker didn't see Venice
without Julius. But if the speaker neither saw Venice with nor without Julius,
then she didn't see Venice. So the discourse-level implicature simply follows
from the conjunction of sentence-level implicatures.

(54) Julius and I first went to Naples and Rome together.
Then, while he went to see Milan, I visited Ravenna.

A crucial assumption in this argument is that the domains of the subquestions
split up the domain of the original question in an exhaustive way. However, a
constraint, or at least a preference along these lines follows from common
assumptions about what is a good discourse strategy in many question-based
approaches to discourse structure (e.g. Roberts 1996). This is, of course, good
news for a conventionalist because, at least in cases like (54), it would be
enough to make your ''implicature operator'' sensitive to a contextual parameter
that imports the domain restriction of the question under discussion and to let
the theory of discourse structure do the rest. Importantly, this is not intended
as an attempt to dismiss the idea of Gricean reasoning at the discourse level.
There are more complex examples than (54), and the requirement of exhaustive
split is most probably a violable constraint, so it should be more revealing to
look at cases when this requirement is violated. That is to say, the
discourse-based argument against conventionalism is not as simple and
straightforward as it is presented in the book, and as the author correctly
points out, the issue urgently demands proper attention from researchers.

Another comment concerns embedded implicatures in contrastive contexts (see pp.
140-143, 181-189) and the distinction between sentential and subsentential
speech acts (e.g. the act of referring, see p. 25). Contrastive contexts are the
only case where the author concedes that pragmatic strengthening of the literal
meaning of an expression can take place locally (i.e. also in the scope of
operators). He also agrees that this pragmatic strengthening is the result of
Gricean reasoning. However, he refuses to call that an implicature. My feeling
is that the discussion of this issue is cut a bit too short in the book. In the
end, one does not get rid of the impression that the question might be purely
terminological. Without a more systematic discussion of the “real” differences
between pragmatic inferences associated with sentential and subsentential speech
acts, the author's narrow understanding of the term ''implicature'' looks somewhat
artificial. On a broader understanding, embedded implicatures would not be a
contradiction in terms, but an exceptional and rare phenomenon.

To conclude, ''Quantity Implicatures'', by Bart Geurts, is a wonderfully carried
out, thought-provoking theoretical study of the advertised quantity
implicatures. It is a good read despite its dry subject matter, and a must for
anyone interested in theoretical pragmatics.


Chemla (2009). Universal implicatures and free choice effects: Experimental
data. Semantics and Pragmatics, 2(2):1--33.

Chemla & Spector (2011). Experimental evidence for embedded scalar implicatures.
Journal of Semantics.

Clifton & Dube (2010). Embedded implicatures observed: A comment on Geurts and
Pouscoulous (2009). Semantics and Pragmatics, 3(7):1--13.

Gajewski & Sharvit (2009). In defense of the grammatical approach to local
implicatures. Natural Language Semantics.

Geurts (2011). Embedded implicatures (cont.). Talk presented at the DGfS
Workshop on Implicatures and Discourse Structure.

Geurts & Pouscoulous (2009a). Embedded implicatures?!? Semantics and Pragmatics,

Geurts & Pouscoulous (2009b). Free choice for all: A response to Emmanuel
Chemla. Semantics and Pragmatics, 2(5):1--10.

Ippolito (2010). Embedded implicatures? Remarks on the debate between globalist
and localist theories. Semantics and Pragmatics, 3(5):1--15.

Roberts (1996). Information structure in discourse: Towards an integrated formal
theory of pragmatics. OSU Working Papers in Linguistics, 49:91--136.

Sauerland (2010). Embedded implicatures and experimental constraints: A reply to
Geurts & Pouscoulous and Chemla. Semantics and Pragmatics, 3(2):1--13.

Katja Jasinskaja is a researcher at the Centre for General Linguistics (ZAS), Berlin, working on the project 'Implicatures and Discourse Structure'. Her main research interests lie in the area of discourse theory, pragmatics and semantics.

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