Understanding Implicatures (classroom activity)


Reading time: 7 minutes


This is the first of two posts with ideas for developing understanding of ‘implicature’ (discussed in the previous research digest on implicature and literary texts), including the ideas that implicatures can be stronger or weaker and that texts vary with regard to how many implicatures they suggest. It mainly targets the Non-Exam Assessment (NEA).

The ideas suggest how texts can be compared in terms of the kinds of implicatures they are likely to give rise to. So they could form the basis of comparison between a literary text and a non-literary text.

If students have been working on particular pragmatic theories, e.g. on Grice’s approach or relevance theory, they can apply their understanding of how these approaches would explain the derivation of particular implicatures. However, these activities show how the notion of ‘implicature’ can be used in analysing texts even without focusing directly on particular theoretical approaches.


The term ‘implicature’ was coined by the philosopher Paul Grice to refer to indirectly communicated assumptions, e.g. to the assumption Bella communicates here that she is planning to read Scott’s new book:

Andy:                Are you going to read Scott’s new book when it’s out?
Bella:                I read everything he writes.

The first set of activities here contains tasks to help students focus on what implicatures are and what kinds of implicatures utterances can convey. The activities in Part 2, which will be posted separately, aim to develop understanding of specific texts by exploring some of their implicatures. While the examples presented below have been chosen to illustrate particular ideas, the activities could focus on examples taken from texts created by students.

Understanding Implicatures

In introducing implicature, it’s important to start with some fairly straightforward examples like the one above about Bella planning to read Scott’s book. A good starting point is simply to present a number of examples and ask students to identify possible implicatures.

a) Identifying implicatures

Students are asked here to look at the final utterances in these exchanges and to identify an implicature which they think the speaker is likely to communicate.

(Andy is asking Bella about an essay which she has been struggling with for a long time)
Andy:                How’s the essay going?
Bella:                Lovely weather just now, isn’t it?

‘Three for two’
(In a shop, Bella has taken two tins of beans to the counter and is about to pay for them)
Assistant:        They’re three for two just now.

‘Good worker?’
(Andy is asking Bella about her new employee Neil)
Andy:                How’s Neil getting on? Is he a good worker?
Bella:                Well, he always arrives in good time.

When using examples like this, it’s important to clarify that these have underspecified contexts, meaning interpretations might vary depending on other aspects of the context. Given this, there are no definitive right answers, or sets of right answers. Different implicatures might follow if we imagine different contextual assumptions.

b) Different implicatures

Having established that students have a reasonable understanding of what an implicature is, this task then considers how implicatures vary depending on particular contextual assumptions.

If students haven’t all made the same suggestions for the examples above, they can begin to explore this by considering what would make different implicatures more or less likely. If students generally agree about implicatures in the previous examples, consider instances where further contextual assumptions are needed to work out the speaker’s intended to implication (with no contextual gloss).

Here, instructions  should make clear that Bella’s individual responses could be understood differently depending on the contextual assumptions available to Andy. Students are then asked to make two suggestions about possible implicatures and to identify contextual assumptions which would make each one likely.

Andy:                Do you know if Scott’s going to Ellen’s party?
Bella:                Jake’s going.

Andy:                Would you like a coffee?
Bella:                Coffee would keep me awake.

Andy:                Do you fancy seeing that new Crocodile film with me?
Bella:                It’s a horror film.

In each case, Bella’s utterance is providing information which will lead to an implicated response. To see what kind of answer she intends, we need to know a bit more. The most likely assumptions we will think of are: whether Scott likes or tries to avoid Jake, whether Bella wants to stay awake or not, and whether Bella likes or hates horror films.

Students can explore this and other examples, considering how different sets of contextual assumptions make particular implicatures more or less likely. These could form the basis of some data generation for NEA.

c) Stronger and weaker implicatures

Having established a reasonable understanding of what an implicature is, these tasks ask students to consider two ideas mentioned in the research digest on ‘Implicature and literary texts’: first, that utterances typically convey more than one implicature; second that we can be more or less sure that certain implicatures are intended, i.e. they can be ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’.

A good starting point is to ask students to look at one of the previous examples and consider other implicatures which might be conveyed at the same time as an implicature they have already discussed. This should work for any of the ‘party’, ‘coffee’ or ‘crocodile’ examples. They might, for example, assume one interpretation of the party response, e.g. that Scott will not be going to the party since Jake is going.

Further implicatures?

If we assume that Scott will not be going to the party since Jake is going, what other conclusions might we draw from this?

Possible answers include: that Scott does not like Jake, that anyone who would like Scott to come to their events should not invite Jake, that Scott might have a negative attitude to anyone who likes Jake, speculations about why Scott does not like Jake, and so on.

Students can then move on to consider other things which Bella might suggest by indicating that she likes or hates horror films. This might include assumptions about relative closeness to others based on their attitude to horror films, or other things which the refusal or acceptance of an offer of coffee might suggest (note that this is likely to raise the idea that an invitation for coffee can be a disguised sexual invitation; in my classes, this often leads to discussion of the phrase ‘netflix and chill’).

The aim of this discussion is to establish:

a. that utterances typically have more than one implicature

b. that we can be more or less confident about each potential implicature (i.e. they can be ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’)

c. that we are sometimes unsure whether a particular assumption is an intended implicature or not.

Students can then go on to consider other examples (again possibly forming the basis of some data generation for the NEA), and experiment with them by imagining different possible utterances which would make particular implicatures stronger or weaker, e.g. Bella might have said ‘I hate horror films’ in response to the question about Crocodile.


Here are some sources to help with understanding implicature and these activities:

Chapman, Siobhan. 2011. Pragmatics. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke. An accessible introduction to pragmatics.

Clark, Billy. 2013. Relevance Theory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. An introduction to relevance theory which also discusses Grice’s work and the idea that implicatures can be stronger or weaker.

Clark, Billy. 2016. Pragmatics. In Marcello Giovanelli and Dan Clayton (eds.) Knowing About Language: Linguistics and the Secondary English Classroom. Routledge, London: 64-76. Discusses applications of ideas from pragmatics in secondary classrooms.

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