Tag Archives: Grice

Grice in Advertisements — It’s a Pretty Big Deal

My first guest post is by XX, a fellow linguist at XX. That’s right, I’m publishing two posts in a row about Grice — hope you can handle it! — MLR

Manipulation of language’s ability to contain double meanings is found all over contemporary advertising slogans. A lot of the time a simple sentence that would not, outside of the context of the advertisement, be considered ambiguous becomes so when paired with the product being sold.  This is the initial idea that got me interested in looking at slogans, to see what sort of double meanings can come out of purely commercial purposes. One sentence that struck my particular attention was, “It’s a pretty big deal.” This was printed on an advertisement for a Ford Fiesta in a magazine.

On its own, “It’s a pretty big deal,” does not seem to have multiple meanings. Outside the context of the advertisement, I take this sentence to mean that ‘it’ is important, in one way or another, whatever ‘it’ may be in context. In the advertisement, the first reading of the sentence follows this interpretation, but when paired with the description of the car’s fuel-efficient engineering, it seems that another interpretation of the sentence is that the car is a ‘good deal’ in the sense that it will save the buyer money. Also, it is significant to note that the ‘it’ in the sentence contains multiple meanings as well. On one hand, ‘it’ could refer to the car (as I have assumed already) but it could also mean the larger idea of Ford’s accomplishment of manufacturing such a vehicle (that, as implied by the nature of the advertisement, can both save a person money and be good for the environment).

Connecting this sentence to Grice’s Cooperative Principle, I would say that this ambiguity is mostly a manipulation of the Maxim of Manner. It is important to note, first, that this manipulation of the maxim ought to be called flouting, instead of a violation. This is because the audience reading this sentence is not confused at all about the multiple messages coming across. The advertising company is flouting the Maxim of Manner in order to purposely be ambiguous, all for the sake of promoting the product. In this case (as Grice would put it) there is still an implicature that comes across in the message.

This advertising company has a specific and reasonable motive for flouting the Maxim of Manner. This motive involves wanting the product to come across as a ‘good deal’ in the economic sense, in the environmental sense, and in the larger sense of being cutting-edge technology. Grice explains that there are two basic types of ambiguity: (1) where two interpretations are equally obvious and straight-forward, and (2) where one interpretation is much more straight-forward than the other. In this particular case, I would say that this form of ambiguity offers interpretations that are both equally straight-forward. After all, advertising companies in general would want their messages to be as clear as possible, in order to ensure the effectiveness of the overall message.

Isn’t making connections between seemingly monotonous things and Gricean conversational maxims fun? I think so.


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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

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