Implicature Reversal in Sarcasm

I have a bit of familiarity with Grice after taking a seminar in experimental pragmatics last Spring, so occasionally I encounter little things that really catch my attention. I’ve been on a bit of a David Foster Wallace kick for a while now (I’ve recently read Infinite Jest, The Broom of the System, & Girl with Curious Hair) & in one short story, I came across an instance of the following phrase being used sarcastically & found it quite interesting:

(1)         He likes kids as much as I do

So what do I find striking about this phrase? Well, first consider its literal use; there’s already an implicature embedded within phrases like this. Without further implicature, the above sentence just means that however much I like kids, he likes them the same amount. But really it’s almost always the case that this sentence will be taken to mean that he & I both like kids. Though some may not agree with me, I would consider this phrase to be context independent.

Why do I think it’s context independent? Well, I believe that the sentence itself carries a predetermined context. Barring outside contextual influences, there’s a fixed interpretation to this phrase. So despite the fact that (1) already possesses an implicature (I like kids), this implicature is a default. Any additional implicature is added deliberately by the speaker and/or context.

However, if this phrase is used sarcastically (that is, if an additional implicature is added by the speaker), a sort of implicature reversal takes place. Instead of implying that we both like kids, the phrase can be used to mean that we both dislike kids. While the original sentence needs little or no context for its implicature to be fleshed out & understood by conversational partners, the sarcastic meaning relies heavily on the condition that the listener is aware of my feelings toward children.

If the sarcastic meaning isn’t clear, try imagining me praising my boyfriend saying “He likes kids as much as I do!” Hint: I am not a particular fan of kids. If my boyfriend doesn’t either, that’s an okay thing!

This VP ellipsis formula , e.g., Person 1 Xs as much as Person 2 Xs, is able to be manipulated in this way regardless of what X equals it appears, e.g., sentence (2). It also works with other parallel structures, as in (3).

(2)         He is as happy to see his estranged sister as I am.

(3)         Yeah, I bet you’re crazy about her new exotic parrot, too.

In both (2) and (3), this same implicature reversal, as I’m calling it, takes place. It is more difficult to tell that (2) and (3) are also context independent because it’s a bit more difficult to remove (2) and (3) from their likely sarcastic motives.

Anyway, these are just a few thoughts on an interesting little line from David Foster Wallace (though it could have been written by anyone, really).

Megan L. Risdal


1 Comment

Filed under Linguistics

One response to “Implicature Reversal in Sarcasm

  1. So forgive my lack of credibility as a non-linguist but I thought I’d share a thought:

    Sarcasm is obviously much easier to convey in speech by emphasis on certain words–really speaking in a way such that no other implication other than sarcasm is possible for the listener. There’s kind of an agreed upon set of “sarcasm markers” that you appeal to in your manner of speaking.

    It’s interesting then that you are analyzing this reversal of implicature in the form of text from a novel. The reader may imagine the dialogue taking place in their head and “hear” so to speak the sarcasm implied, but to make the implication of sarcasm apparent with signs I think is different, perhaps more difficult, not only because of the difference between speaking and interpreting signs, but also because in a text there is another another layer of dialogue occurring, that of the reader and the author. That is, first there is the author’s desire for the reader to see that the character’s phrase is sarcastic, and then second there is the reader’s visualization of this dialogue taking place in his mind.

    Just a thought.

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