Conversational Implicature


My brother this morning uttered a sentence that I think deserves a bit of syntactic analysis. The context, if you can’t recover it from the sentence itself, was essentially my brother swapping a telephone cable, which resulted in the new cable sagging a bit with the slack. There is, however, a hook whose purpose is to take up the slack, except that it wasn’t in quite the right spot. Thus:

That hook could use moving.

This amused me somewhat, and much to their chagrin, I let everyone present know¹. It makes perfect sense to me, even if it’s a little difficult to see how the whole is composed by its parts, so I’m interested in how it came about.

I see the influence, and intersection, of a couple of other idiomatic syntactic constructions here, which I’ll refer to as the could use construction and the needs verbing construction.The could use construction was, I reckon, more originally said of animate subjects and refered to tangible things, such as:

I could use a torch

From here, it’s only a short journey to more abstract arguments, although the subject would still be an animate, as in:

You could use a break

This then would be taken to be euphemistic version of something like ‘I need a break’. Which brings me to the next construction of which this sentence was reminiscent: the needs verbing construction. I believe Language Log addressed this construction a while back, at least once, but I can’t find any record of it. The basic idea is, take a full sentence of the format x needs to be verb-en, and reformulate it such that it becomes x needs verbing. So your dog needs to be washed (unequivocally transparent syntax there) becomes:

Your dog needs washing

If we consider the lexical specifications of the quasi-modal verb need, then I hope we can agree that in its canonical form, it takes a complement, which usually surfaces as an object, as in:

I need a taco

It’s also possible for need to take as its complement an S (sentence) beginning with a to-infinitive verb, whose subject is functionally controlled by the subject of the matrix verb, or, if there is one, the object².

Let me put that another way: take a sentence like:

I need to do the washing

The person who does the washing here is the same person who does the needing: I. Whereas in:

I need you to do the washing

The person who does the washing is you instead (if you accede to my request, that is), so the controller of the subject of wash, in each instance, is the nearest argument. I’m getting slightly off-track, so ignore these little tangents relating to LFG and recall what I said about need in its canonical sense taking an object as its complement (I need a taco). Morphosyntactically speaking, a direct object is a noun, so it could be filled by a gerund; the -ing form of the verb that acts as a noun, as in his doing the dishes impressed me. This might be a red herring, but is it possible that the verb in the need verbing construction is in fact a gerund?

This analysis is probably getting a little bit too big for its boots by now, so I might wrap it up. I believe what my brother intended to say was that hook needs to be moved, which, on account of the entirely common needs verbing construction, becomes that hook needs moving. Finally, taking the rough synonymy in this instance of could use and needs, he came out with a slightly more euphemistic sentence that on one hand, implied that I should in fact move the hook while, on the other, cushioning the imposition on me to actually do something³, and produced:

That hook could use moving

Brilliant. Is this how people do construction grammar?


¹It’s quite normally the case that my occasional bursts of intense amusement in totally minor linguistic curios solicit sighs of impending boredom from everyone within earshot. That is, until I met my nibulin⁴, who is also a linguist and is similarly amused, just as intensely, by such things.
²I might be wrong about one or two points of terminology here, such as anapahoric versus functional control as it’s been quite a while since I’ve done any lexical-functional grammar. If you spot anything, let me know.
³There’s an awful lot of speech act theory and conversational politeness theory bound up in that which I don’t really have the time to go into, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
⁴I’m not going to define this for you – if you really desperately want to know what it is you can find the online Wagiman dictionary and look it up.

In checking out some of the news this morning, I noticed the following as one of the ABC’s main headlines:

Petrol rise to limit emissions unsustainable: economist

Before I go on, I think it’s worth explaining how I interpret this headline, and why. The noun phrase petrol rise need not refer to a policy decision to raise petrol; it may simply be a matter-of-fact observation that the price of petrol is increasing. But the embedded verb phrase to limit emissions makes the volitional interpretation clear; the price of petrol is being raised for a purpose; to limit emissions.

Moreover, the predicate unsustainable confirms this, as sustainability is a characteristic usually attributed to something over which someone, at least somewhere, has some control. You can talk about (un)sustainable economic growth, (un)sustainable agriculture, but you can’t really talk about (un)sustainable reptilian skin shedding. The reason for this, I’d contend, is that sustain is an ergative1 verb; it requires a volitional agent as much as murder does.

Okay, that said, I can talk about the more interesting pragmatic aspects of this headline. As far as I’m aware, there is no policy to raise the price of petrol in order to limit carbon emissions. In fact both government and opposition plan to lower the price of petrol instead of doing anything proactive to mitigate justifiably high fuel costs.

So why the headline? It seems to me to imply that there is currently a policy, to raise petrol prices, that would be unsustainable.

I think the ABC are violating one of the key Gricean maxims of conversational implicature. The ABC has not been as informative with this headline as required by the context. Further on in the article however, we find more information:

[The economist advising the Federal Government, Ross Garnaut] has rejected any notion that petrol should be exempt from a future carbon emissions trading scheme and suggested higher petrol prices could help mitigate carbon emissions.

But Professor Garnaut says in the long term, hiking petrol prices to control emissions is unsustainable.

So the fact that Garnaut warned about prolonged petrol price rises is in fact meant to be taken in the context of his suggestion to raise them in the first place. This, I believe, is a violation of the maxim of quantity; the reader is not given enough information in the headline to know the context in which Garnaut is warning us about prolonged petrol price rises. Also, since we’re told about the warning without the context behind it, this is also arguably an example of the converse of this maxim; we’re told too much information than is required by the circumstances.

A much more conversationally optimal headline, in my humble opinion, would have been something along the lines of Raise petrol prices to limit emissions: economist.


  1. For want of a better term. I don’t want to use traditional terms like ‘active verb’, but I think you get the idea.