May 20, 2004

Two Implicatures

1. The National Park Service directions to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty contain this passage:

10. Continue 2.3 miles south-southwest to a combination fence, cattle guard #4, iron-pipe gate - and a sign declaring the property behind the fence to be that of the "Rafter S. Ranch". Here too, is a "No Trespassing" sign.
11. At this gate the class D road designation ends. If you choose to continue south for another 2.3 miles, and around the east side of Rozel Pint, you should see the Lake and a jetty (not the Spiral Jetty)...

Why do they say "If you choose to"? Do they really think that you're going to drive 65 miles north to Corinne, Utah, 25 miles west to the Golden Spike National Historic Site, 5.6 miles on a gravel road, and 7 more miles on Box Elder County Class D (maintained) roads, and then give up before you get to the Spiral Jetty, unless your car is leaking oil? Or is it that they feel that they cannot write "Continue South..." in the imperative mode if continuing south is trespassing? By phrasing it in this way, are they trying to invoke the Maxim of Manner in such a way as to let you know that this is trespassing? Is there a legal theory on which putting this in conditional form absolves them from responsibility? And if there are trespassing issues, how can they mark the Rafter S. gate on the map as "closed, but not locked," unless there's an under the table agreement?

2. As I was being dropped off by the folks whose car had started leaking oil (at the Golden Spike) even though it had been allegedly fixed within the past week, I tried to psych them up for the ensuing discussion with their mechanics by saying, "Knock them dead. Literally." This isn't quite an example of my favorite uncancellable implicatures, but it's something related. "Knock them dead" is an idiom, and my saying "literally" indicated that it was not to be taken with its idiomatic meaning. But it does not indicate that it is to be taken literally, but rather figuratively as an expression of annoyance. The literal interpretation is so outlandish that my words must be interpreted another way. To literally tell someone to knock someone else dead would be a serious crime, which I would never... Hold on, someone's knocking.

Posted by Matt Weiner at May 20, 2004 04:15 PM