January 28, 2007

Implicature troubles

Sometimes you can get into trouble by providing Too Much Information, as this cartoon shows:

(Hat tip to Dave Borowitz.)

Where things started to go wrong here is where Jade refers to "two black guys".  We'll take her word for it that the guys in question were black, but why did she mention that?  Was it somehow relevant?  Important?

Not everything that's true is relevant (or important) in context.  She could have mentioned their ages, their heights, the country they grew up in, their sexuality, their marital status, the city they live in, their relationship to her, or a zillion other things.  (Even mentioning their sex could be problematic; the combination of black and male might raise a flag in our society.)  What if she had said one of the following?

two guys in their thirties
two guys of average height
two Americans
two straight guys
two single guys
two New Yorkers
two acquaintances from grade school

In each case, her audience would be sent on a hunt to discover what these properties might have to do with Jade and her Uno game.

The large principle at work here is part of H.P. Grice's account of "conversational implicature": the principle of RELEVANCE, that what you say should be relevant to the context, which means that if people are assuming you're behaving cooperatively, they'll assume that what you say is indeed relevant to the context.  Which means they'll read more into what you said than what you literally said; what you said will "implicate" more than its face value.

So the fact that Jade's fellow Uno-players were black (and also male) looms large.  Maybe she's telling us that she's cool, and hangs out comfortably with black men.  Whatever.  There's a message there, even if she didn't intend it.  (And nothing gets fixed at the end; the offered revision is even worse than her original.)

Some years ago, in a discussion of plant theft on a gardening newsgroup (plant theft is a distressingly common occurrence), one poster reported that a family of Laotian immigrants had come in the middle of the night, dug up her whole vegetable garden, and carted it away in their truck.  The poster was astonished at the sharp criticism she got from other people on the group, who perceived what she wrote as a slur on Laotian immigrants (or, possibly, Laotians in general or immigrants in general); but by providing these details about the thieves, right at the beginning of her account, she made them loom large in the discourse, overshadowing her intended main point, the monstrous effrontery of the theft.  (By the end of the discussion, I'd concluded that the "those people" tone of her original posting probably reflected her attitudes accurately, but that she wasn't consciously aware of those attitudes.)

This is a place where Strunk's advice to Omit Needless Words is (sort of) good advice -- except that what you should be omitting is not really needless specific words, but needless information.  And to do that well, you'll have to gauge your audience and the context pretty carefully (as well as examining your own intentions).  It's not at all like being careful to omit of with (certain uses of certain) prepositions -- "Kim walked out the door" instead of "Kim walked out of the door" -- which is a relatively mechanical adjustment in the use of very specific words.  (Of course, you might be inclined to just thumb your nose at this prepositional advice, even though it's in piles of handbooks and is often "justified" on the basis of ONW.)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 28, 2007 11:55 AM