Every linguistic statement is made not only of what it says, but also of hidden contents. Seeing a purse in a shop window, we might note with satisfaction that it is beautiful yet affordable. The use of ‘yet’ expresses a contrast, justified by the fact that when a purse is beautiful, we expect it not to be affordable. But then, how do we explain that it is equally natural, passing by the shop window with the purse, to say: it’s beautiful, yet expensive? If it makes sense to express a contrast between being beautiful and being affordable, how can it make sense to express a contrast between being beautiful and being expensive? The explanation is that while in the first case the contrast is established between what is said, in the second case, it concerns what is implied: being beautiful implies that I would like to buy it, but being expensive implies that I cannot.

“it’s beautiful”                                        “it’s expensive”


(I would like to buy it)                            (I can’t buy it)

Implicature is the mechanism by which something not said by the speaker is inferred by the listener, often without being aware of it. Let’s imagine we ask a mutual friend: ‘Has John returned from Paris?‘ and he responds: ‘There’s a red bicycle in front of the florist.’ Even though, literally understood, this statement doesn’t answer our question, we interpret it based on what H. P. Grice called the Cooperative Principle, meaning we assume our friend intended to respond. Since, if interpreted literally, it would be an unfelicitous response, more or less consciously, we adjust based on the fact that our friend’s intention is to indirectly imply a felicitous response. Therefore, we understand that John has returned from Paris, and that the red bike parked in front of the florist is his. Context can also play a role in this implicature: we’re more likely to find the correct interpretation of the statement if we know that John owns a red bike, and that the florist is his girlfriend. A different context would lead to a different interpretation of John’s return from Paris; for example, if we knew that Geoffrey, John’s rival for the florist’s affections, owns a red bike.

From a persuasive standpoint, implicature has the advantage that if the recipient constructs a certain content themselves, they are less likely to question it. A good example of this is the political billboards from the 2006 elections that we are discussing in the Political Persuasion section. But also in the following commercial advertisements, where implied contents are left to be inferred, which, if asserted, would appear more evidently questionable:

“As healthy as a Plasmon”

Implicature: “Plasmon is the best example of what’s healthy!”

“As good as sugar, as safe as aspartame”

Implicature: “Aspartame is the best example of what’s ‘safe’!”

“Let us always pray for ourselves, for one another, let us pray for the whole world so that there may be a great brotherhood! – Pope Francis”

Implicature:  “Praying is effective and yields results in reality!”

Politicians, therefore, make extensive use of implicatures when they want to smuggle in questionable content without the recipients realizing it as such. We report the following brief excerpts translated from Italian political speeches, indicating the author in parentheses and providing an explicit explanation (in bold type) of the content that is insinuated as implicature, which in most cases, if asserted directly, would sound false, exaggerated, or at least so unlikable as to render the message counterproductive:

  • “We are not a party where one person decides for everyone.” (Renzi) – In other parties, there is one person who decides for everyone.
  • “We conducted an election campaign based on the concepts of seriousness and truth. We continue to believe that truth is not an alternative to hope. You cannot give hope by telling lies.” (Letta) – My opponents give hope by telling lies.
  • “I consider this vote to be an extraordinary vote of hope, of a country that has all the conditions to be able to change, and to be able to invite Europe to change.” (Renzi) – It is necessary and desirable for Italy and Europe to ‘change’.
  • “But we believe it is possible, by working on reducing expenses, to ensure that there are reductions in standard costs in all regions; for example, in healthcare, one should not pay ten times as much for a syringe in Calabria as the cost of the same syringe in a Northern region.” (Berlusconi) – In Calabria, a syringe really does cost ten times more, which means that Calabrian administrators steal. And those from the ‘Northern regions’ do not steal.
  • “In Rome, in the political palaces, no one has any more excuses. There is no more room to postpone reforms, be they institutional, constitutional, electoral, labor-related, in public administration, justice, or taxation.” (Renzi) – All these things need to be reformed, and therefore the failure to reform them constitutes a postponement and delay, for which my opponents seek excuses.
  • “The next president must not be an accomplice to this EU flag. PRODI, VELTRONI, AMATO… in the face of neutrality.” (Salvini) – The previous presidents were ‘accomplices,’ that is, allies in the crime, of this EU flag.
  • “I want reforms not made haphazardly, and those who vote should know what they are voting for: a mess remains a mess no matter who votes for it.” (Giannino) – The reform under discussion is made haphazardly, those who vote for it do not know what they are voting for, and it is a mess.
  • “Are you ready to return to the election campaign to give Italy a solid, capable, and liberal government?” (Berlusconi) – The current government is neither solid, capable, nor liberal.
  • “Voting right or left means voting German.” (Salvini) – Voting German is a negative thing.
  • “Either you get involved, or we get involved, or else we become like the others.” (Renzi) – Becoming like ‘the others’ is a disaster to avoid because they are worse than us.