Conversational Exculpature and Loose Talk

Daniel Hoek (NYU Philosophy)


In addition to conversational implicature, there is also such a thing as conversational exculpature, a pragmatic process whereby information is subtracted from, rather than added to, what the speaker literally says. This pragmatic content subtraction explains a range of linguistic phenomena. Amongst other things, it accounts for why we can say “Rob is six feet tall” without implying that Rob is between 5’11.99” and 6’0.01” tall, and why we can say “Ellen has a hat like the one Sherlock Holmes always wears” without implying Holmes exists or has a hat. For the purpose of this talk, I will focus on the application to loose talk. I presents a simple formalism for understanding conversational exculpature, specifying how, in context, the result of subtracting one piece of information from another is determined. I then show how the resulting theory can explain the central data around loose talk, including an issue involving negation that causes problems for almost every other pragmatic account.