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An Implicature Account of Idioms

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The traditional approach of treating idiomatic phrases as lexical items has been criticized for failing to account for the semantic and syntactic flexibility such phrases can exhibit. Pragmatic accounts of idioms are now being proposed, according to which the words of the idiomatic phrase contribute their ordinary semantic content as the basis for a pragmatic interpretation of the idiom. After examining the strengths and weaknesses of Andy Egan’s Pretence view, I argue that idioms convey their idiomatic sense via conversational implicature. Idiomatic phrases in their typical use are explained as cases of generalized conversational implicature, while the figurative modification and extension of idioms identified by Egan are explained as cases of particularized conversational implicature. I show that the Implicature view is compatible with both the stereotypical inflexibility of idiomatic phrases and the observation that the understanding of idioms does not seem to proceed by a process of deriving the idiom’s meaning on the basis of the ordinary meaning of the idiom’s constituent words.

Affiliations: 1: State University of New York at New Paltz, USA


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