March 05, 2004

Layers of Implicature

Some interesting questions raised by the second sentence here:

(1) We want to make sure that you receive these items. Before we can proceed, however, we ask that you check with your local post office to see if your package can be found.

Literally, the sentence would seem to mean "We cannot proceed until we ask that you check..." That would make an appropriate answer, "OK, you've asked, now you can proceed." I don't think that's what's intended.

(2) Before we can proceed, however, please check with your local post office to see if your package can be found.

Maybe (2) deserves an asterisk, but it seems like something that might be said. Now, in "Look before you leap," "A! before B" means "Do A before B is true." That doesn't work either--it's not like I'm in a race against time, where I have to get to the PO before they develop the ability to proceed, and if not it'll be too late.

Now, the idea seems to be that they cannot proceed until I check with the Post Office. This seems like it would literally be written

(3) Before we can proceed, you must check with your local post office.

Here there seems to be two layers of decoding involved. First the performative "We ask that you check" gets turned into the imperative "Check," and then the imperative "Check" gets turned into the modal "You must check." Perhaps last step is similar to the process by which "To be healthy, exercise" gets decoded into "To be healthy, you must exercise" (if indeed that happens).

Note that I've been supposing that all manner of implicatures are computed in-line.

But there's yet another layer of implicature. (3) is unlikely to be literally true; I bet they could proceed even if I don't check. So really, since Quality is flouted, (1) means something like:

(4) Before we will proceed, you must check with your local post office.

It seems to me that there's a lot of decoding involved in figuring out what (1) means.

(1) also raises other questions:

If someone ships me a package and it doesn't get to me, why is it my responsibility to hassle their carrier? Why won't they give me a tracking number that matches the carrier who's actually supposed to have delivered the package? What use is it to me to order a book that doesn't arrive until after we've finished it in the reading group? Does everyone else have this kind of experience with, or is it just me? [UPDATE: It seems only fair to add that, having been told (truly) that I asked around at the post office, Amazon is now rush-shipping me a replacement.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 5, 2004 01:49 PM