Implicatures on Capitol Hill

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Those of us who teach introductory Linguistics courses owe a special debt to James Comey's testimony yesterday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

This two-hour exchange offers us a broad and deep source of evocative and consequential real-world examples of the ways that what is said, what is meant, and what is communicated may be different.

One salient example, of many, is discussed in this exchange between Comey and Senator James Risch:

JamesRisch: I- I want to uh drill right down as my time is limited uh
to the most recent dust up uh regarding
uh allegations that the president of the United States uh
obstructed justice.
And boy you nailed this down on page five paragraph three.
You put this in quotes.
Words matter.
You wrote down the words so we can all have the words in front of us now.
There's 28 words there that are in quotes and it says quote:
I hope
this is the president speaking
I hope
you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.
He is a good guy.
I hope
you can let this go
Now those are his exact words, is that correct?
JamesComey: Correct.
JamesRisch: And you wrote them here and put them in quotes.
JamesComey: Correct.
JamesRisch: Okay.
thank you for that.
He did not direct you to let it go.
JamesComey: Not in his words, no.
JamesRisch: He did not order you to let it go.
JamesComey: Again, those words are not an order.
JamesRisch: No.

That's all I have time for at the moment, but there'll be more examples and discussion later.

For a sense of why I'm professionally grateful, see my lecture notes on Philosophy of Language and on Pragmatics.

And among many other relevant LLOG posts, you might take a look at "A result that no sensible person could have intended", 12/8/2005.

Update — Another take on the same implicature, this time in the Q&A between Comey and Senator Angus King:

AngusKing: In terms of his comments to you about- I think it w- in response to
mister Risch, Senator Risch,
you said- he said, I hope you'll hold back on that,
but when you get a- when a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like, I hope or I suggest or- or would you,
do you take that as a- as a- as a directive?
JamesComey: Yes.
Yes. It rings in my ear as, well, will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest.
AngusKing: I was just going to quote that, in 1170, December 27th, Henry II said, who will rid me of the meddlesome priest, and the next day, he was killed.
We're thinking along- along the same lines.

Update — More here.


  1. D.O. said,

    June 9, 2017 @ 10:28 am

    Is this substantially different than the shopworn "Nice X you have here. Shame if anything happened to it"?

    [(myl) There are many relevant cultural clichés like that one, as well thousands of well-known fictional and real-world examples, and unlimited numbers of freshly imagined ones. But the implicatures discussed in Comey's testimony — and this is far from the only example — are unusually rich in in interpretive background and documented detail, usually freighted with possible real-world consequences, and unusually widely discussed.]

  2. Rebecca said,

    June 9, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

    What I thought was really striking in this example was how Risch explained it in follow-up discussions. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, he stresses that the president's words (as quoted by Comey) indicated that the president "hoped for an outcome of the investigation", which is very different than directing or asking Comey to drop the investigation.

    Although Risch claims that this is significant because both he and Comey, as lawyers, "study words", I think he's missing an important distinction. The Trump's words didn't hope for an outcome, as Risch says, but they hoped for Comey to perform an action. For me, the following two have very different forces, coming from my boss:

    a) "I hope you can see clear to give John a passing grade in this class"

    b) "I hope John gets a passing grade in this class"

    Like Comey, I wouldn't take (a) to be an order, but I would take it to be a clear indication of what my boss wants me to do, which is not present (or at least, much much weaker) in (b)

    I think Risch should study words some more, maybe by taking your Pragmatics class.

    Here's a link to the Anderson Cooper interview, with these comments at about 2:07

  3. KeithB said,

    June 9, 2017 @ 4:03 pm

    What did the President hope, and when did he hope it?

  4. Cynthia H said,

    June 9, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

    I think this clip from the Daily Show, talking about the example you have above, and specifically the use of "hope", would be great for an Intro class discussion, starting around 6:05 and going until about 8:10:

    At 7:15, Trevor Noah says, "Senator Risch is making it sound like President Trump was innocently hoping, like language doesn't have subtext. He makes it sound like Trump was a Disney character, standing out on a balcony singing, I hope Mike Flynn will be free some day. I hope he'll get away"

    Gold mine!

  5. AntC said,

    June 9, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

    If there are tapes of all these exchanges, I wonder how listening to the sound-only would influence interpretation?

    Comey's testimony provided quite a bit of non-verbal circumstance; and we know from Trump's stump performances, he's a master of the unsaid ("… maybe Second Amendment people … I'm just saying …").

  6. John Burke said,

    June 9, 2017 @ 5:25 pm

    Jane Austen, in "Sense and Sensibility," writes that "For them [Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne Dashwood], to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect."

  7. jick said,

    June 9, 2017 @ 7:55 pm

    That reminds me of a scandal of South Korea's then-presidential-candidate Lee Myung-Bak and the allegation that he had participated in stock fraud using a paper company named BBK. Lee insisted he had nothing to do with the company, and then somebody found a video of him publicly stating "And thus [I] founded BBK."

    Except that this is Korean, and the subject is usually omitted when it is obvious from the context.

    So, Lee's defense: of course he meant "And thus [somebody else] founded BBK."

    He went on to win the election (of 2007) and became president. And, yes, I'm still butthurt about that.

  8. N.D. said,

    June 10, 2017 @ 10:40 am

    Listen to the contrastive focus Comey puts on "words" in his response at this part of the first clip:

    JamesRisch: He did not order you to let it go.
    JamesComey: Again, those words are not an order.

    He clearly wants to get at while it was not worded as a direct order, it was intended to be taken as one.

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