Conversational Implicatures and Legal Texts

21 Pages Posted: 26 Feb 2016

See all articles by Brian G. Slocum

Brian G. Slocum

University of the Pacific - McGeorge School of Law

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Date Written: March 2016


Legal texts are often given interpretations that deviate from their literal meanings. While legal concerns often motivate these interpretations, others can be traced to linguistic phenomena. This paper argues that systematicities of language usage, captured by certain theories of conversational implicature, can sometimes explain why the meanings given to legal texts by judges differ from the literal meanings of the texts. Paul Grice's account of conversational implicature is controversial, and scholars have offered a variety of ways to conceptualize implicatures and Grice's maxims of conversation. Approaches that emphasize the systematic nature of implicatures can provide explanatory accounts of the gap between literal meaning and the meaning communicated in the text. For example, a theory of scalar implicature, a type of generalized conversational implicature, can account for the application of the interpretive principle known as ejusdem generis, which narrows the scope of "catch‐all" clauses located at the end of lists of items. Despite the availability of such theories, some scholars have argued that conversational implicatures are not applicable to legislation. The arguments, based primarily on the uniqueness of the legislative context and its noncooperative nature, though, do not establish the inapplicability of conversational implicatures to legislation.

Suggested Citation

Slocum, Brian G., Conversational Implicatures and Legal Texts (March 2016). Ratio Juris, Vol. 29, Issue 1, pp. 23-43, 2016. Available at SSRN: or

Brian G. Slocum (Contact Author)

University of the Pacific - McGeorge School of Law ( email )

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