Cambridge University Press 2011
It’s now well over 100 years since John Stuart Mill noted that, if I say “I saw some of your children today”, you get the impression that I didn’t see all of them. This idea – that what we don’t say can also carry meaning – was fleshed out 50 years ago by Paul Grice. Given the timeframe involved, you might be tempted to ask why we’re still working on this today. (I work in this area myself, and I’m often tempted to ask…)
Bart Geurts‘s engaging book Quantity Implicatures (Cambridge University Press, 2011) answers this question in several ways. For one thing, as the author observes, inferences of this type are very widespread in day-to-day interaction. For another, as this book also makes clear, some of these inferences are difficult to explain systematically, and this difficulty has begotten a wide range of contrasting and conflicting theories that make competing claims about the nature of pragmatics (and semantics) in general.
In this interview, Geurts discusses the evidence that leads him to favour a Gricean view over a conventionalist account (one in which the richer meanings have the status of linguistic conventions), but also why he thinks the precise direction of recent Gricean approaches is not quite right. Following the trajectory of the book, we go on to look at more complex expressions, and discuss why these sometimes exotic constructions might enable progress to be made in distinguishing correct from incorrect theories.