Relevance theory

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Relevance theory is a proposal by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson that seeks to explain the second method of communication: one that takes into account implicit inferences.[clarification needed] It argues that the hearer/reader/audience will search for meaning in any given communication situation and having found meaning that fits their expectation of relevance, will stop processing.

Relevance theory contrasted with the Conduit Metaphor[edit]

There are two ways to conceive of how thoughts are communicated from one person to another. The first way is through the use of strict coding and decoding, (such as is used with Morse code). In this approach the speaker/author encodes their thoughts and transmits them to their audience. The audience receives the encoded message and decodes it to arrive at the meaning the speaker/author intended. This can be visualized as follows:

Speaker's thought/intention   ⇒   encoded   ⇒   transmitted   ⇒   decoded   ⇒   intention/thought understood.

This is usually referred to as the code model[1] or the conduit metaphor[2] of communication. Human communication however, is almost never this simple. Context almost always plays a part in communication as do other factors such as the author's intentions, the relationship between the sender and receiver and so forth.

The second way of conceiving how thoughts are communicated is by the author/speaker only conveying as much information as is needed in any given context, so that the audience can recover their intended meaning from what was said/written as well as from the context and implications. In this conceptual model, the author takes into account the context of the communication and the mutual cognitive environment between the author and the audience. (That is what the author/speaker thinks that audience already knows). They then say just enough to communicate what they intend - relying on the audience to fill in the details that they did not explicitly communicate. This can be visualized as follows:

Speaker's thought/intention ± context-mediated information   ⇒   encoded   ⇒   transmitted   ⇒   decoded ± context-mediated information   ⇒   thought/intention understood by hearer (an interpretive resemblance to the speaker's intention).


Here is a simple example:
Mary: How many loaves of bread do we have?
Bill: five.

Bill did not say "five loaves". He also did not say "five loaves of bread". Both are implied with his reply. But both are somewhat redundant. What Bill said was just enough to understand his meaning. Mary fills in the missing context-mediated information, i.e. that the question was about loaves of bread and not about something else. She understands that they have five loaves of bread from Bill's one word answer.

Here is another slightly harder example:
Mary: Would you like to come for a run?
Bill: I'm resting today.

We may understand from this example that Bill does not want to go for a run. But that is not what he said. He only said enough for Mary to add the context-mediated information: i.e. someone who is resting doesn't usually go for a run. The implication may appear that Bill doesn't want to go for a run today.

A closer analysis may however reveal a different picture. Bill in fact may fancy another woman, Jane, more, and wants to go for a run with Jane and not Mary. He doesn't want to say "no", because he doesn't want Mary to know he's uninterested, because he wants to continue selfishly exploiting Mary's one-sided interest. He doesn't want to say "yes" because he would lie. So he says he's resting today, which is true, with a deceptive intention for the answer to be interpreted as a no. In fact he's resting only part of the day, and after that will go running with Jane.

After all, Mary didn't ask what he's doing today, but whether he wants to go for a run. Mary may see through this and feel disrespected by Bill evading her question.

These examples illustrate an important point: speech underdetermines thought. What we say (write, etc.) is small compared to the thoughts which generate the communicative act as well as the thoughts the act typically provokes.


Sperber and Wilson’s theory begins with some watershed assumptions that are typical of pragmatic theories. Namely, it argues that all utterances are encountered in some context and that utterances convey a number of implicatures. In addition, they posit the notion of manifestness, which is when something is grasped either consciously or unconsciously by a person.

They further note that it will be manifest to people who are engaged in inferential communication that each other have the notion of relevance in their minds. This will cause each person engaged in the interaction to arrive at the presumption of relevance, which is the notion that (a) implicit messages are relevant enough to be worth bothering to process, and (b) the speaker will be as economical as they possibly can be in communicating it.

The core of the theory is the “communicative principle of relevance”, which states that by the act of making an utterance the speaker is conveying that what they have said is worth listening to, i.e. it will provide "cognitive effects" worthy of the processing effort required to find the meaning. In this way, every ostensive act of communication (that is the lexical "clues" that are explicitly conveyed when we speak/write) will look something like this:

1. The speaker purposefully gives a clue to the hearer, ("ostensifies"), as to what she wishes to communicate - that is a clue to her intention.

2. The hearer infers the intention from the clue and the context-mediated information. The hearer must interpret the clue, taking into account the context, and surmise what the speaker intended to communicate.

For Sperber and Wilson, relevance is conceived as relative or subjective, as it depends upon the state of knowledge of a hearer when they encounter an utterance. However, they are quick to note that their theory does not attempt to exhaustively define the concept of "relevance" in everyday use, but tries to show an interesting and important part of human communication, in particular ostensive-inferential communication.


Relevance Theory's central insights are formalized in the following two-part principle, the Presumption of Optimal Relevance (see Postface to Sperber and Wilson 1995, p. 270):

  • The ostensive stimulus is relevant enough for it to be worth the addressee's effort to process it.
  • The ostensive stimulus is the most relevant one compatible with the communicator's abilities and preferences.


  • Sentence
  • Sentence Utterance
  • Sentence Sense
    • Logical Form
  • Explicature
    • Contextually Enriched Logical Form
    • Fully Propositional Logical Form
    • Truth-Conditional Proposition
    • Explicit Proposition
    • Explicated Proposition
  • Implicature
    • Implicit Proposition
    • Implicated Proposition
A sentence encodes a set of sentence senses.
A set of sentence senses entail a contextually enriched logical form.
An explicit proposition implies implicit propositions.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sperber, Dan/Wilson, Deirdre (1995): Relevance: Communication and Cognition, Second Edition, Oxford/Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, pp. 2–9.
  2. ^ Reddy, M. (1979): "The conduit metaphor – a case of frame conflict in our language about language." In: Ortony (ed., 1979), Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 284–324.

Further reading[edit]

  • Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson. (1987) Precis of Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 10, 697-754.
  • Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson. (2004) "Relevance Theory" in G. Ward and L. Horn (eds) Handbook of Pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell, 607-632. [1]