I find this situation arising from time to time:

  1. There's an ambiguous phrase Z with multiple possible meanings, X and Y (for illustration).

  2. If the author meant X, a reasonable or necessary choice of phrasing is Z.

  3. If the author meant Y, they could (and hence would) have written the phrase differently in order to avoid ambiguity.

  4. Therefore I conclude that the author does not mean Y, and hence means X.

I find it particularly important to be aware of this in technical writing: you need to write in the expected way.

I'm just after a name for this process...

Question: What's this inference process called?

Example 1:

There is a 12-page limit which could include references.

I infer that the page limit does not include references (or at least, it doesn't always include references), since if it did, they would have simply written:

There is a 12-page limit which includes references.

Example 2:

This also arose recently in my Chinese.SE question with the example:

I have two sisters

Without further inference, the above could mean older and/or younger sisters. However, if I meant anything other than "one older and one younger", I would have said either:

I have two older sisters

I have two younger sisters

Thus we infer I have one older and one younger sister.

  • I'm trying to understand your first example. Could you rephrase it based on your interpretation? Maybe like this? "There is a 12 page limit. References may optionally count towards the limit."
    – wjandrea
    Dec 25, 2019 at 21:37

1 Answer 1


I'd say "implicature" or "using Grice's Maxims" (specifically, the maxim of quantity, I think)

  • 2
    Grice's maxims lay out quite a lot of what's going on here. And yes, the maxims of quantity are the key. Specifically, they are: (1) Make your contribution as informative as is required. (2) Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
    – jlawler
    Dec 25, 2019 at 2:59
  • 2
    It would help to add some definitions. Google says "implicature" is "the action of implying a meaning beyond the literal sense of what is explicitly stated, e.g., saying the frame is nice and implying I don't like the picture in it."
    – wjandrea
    Dec 25, 2019 at 21:13

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