In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Relevance Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliography
  • Developmental Work
  • Experimental Work
  • Explicature and the Explicit/Implicit Distinction
  • Irony
  • Lexical Pragmatics and Lexical Semantics
  • Literary Language
  • The Pragmatics of And
  • Metaphor, Hyperbole, and Idioms
  • Metarepresentation
  • Modularity
  • Mutual Knowledge and Mutual Manifestness
  • Politeness and Phatic Communion
  • Prosody
  • Procedural and Non-Truth-Conditional Meaning
  • Reasoning and Epistemic Vigilance
  • Relevance Theory and the Gricean Background
  • Speech Acts

Linguistics Relevance Theory
Nicholas Allott
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0256


Relevance theory attempts to provide a psychologically realistic, explicit account of communication. It makes foundational claims about both cognition in general and utterances and how they are processed in particular. The former is the cognitive principle of relevance: cognition tends to seek maximal relevance, where an input to a cognitive process is more relevant the more positive effects it has on the mind’s representations of the world, and less relevant the greater the effort required to derive them. Although on this view we have a tendency to seek the greatest possible payoff for the least possible effort, there is no general guarantee that an input to a cognitive process will be relevant. However, communication is special. Speakers want to be understood, and they therefore tailor their utterances to their audience. Relevance theory claims that this raises a defeasible expectation that the utterance will be “optimally relevant”; that is, that it is both relevant enough to be worth processing and as relevant as the speaker is willing and able to make it. (This is the communicative principle of relevance.) It further claims that this mandates the relevance-theoretic comprehension heuristic: a fast and frugal procedure dedicated to processing utterances. Relevance theory claims that what a speaker communicates falls into two classes: explicatures, or propositions that are developments of the logical form of the sentence uttered, and other propositions conveyed, which are implicatures. A further fundamental assumption of relevance theory is that linguistically encoded meaning radically underdetermines the content that a speaker intends to convey. Much research has focused on investigating this linguistic underdetermination and on developing accounts of the interpretation of particular linguistic items and types of utterances. Specific areas of research include lexical pragmatics; figurative speech, including metaphor and irony; the interpretation of discourse connectives and linguistic items that have non-truth-conditional meaning; and the interpretation of logical linguistic items such as and, if . . . then, and negation. Turning briefly to the history of the field: relevance theory is grounded in the philosopher Paul Grice’s work on meaning and conversation, and the theoretical advances of the cognitive revolution in linguistics and psychology. It was initially developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson in the late 1970s and 1980s, and has been one of the leading pragmatic theories since then. Both Sperber and Wilson continue to be active in developing the theory. Other key contributors include Diane Blakemore, who introduced the notion of procedural meaning, and Robyn Carston, who is best known for her work on the semantics/pragmatics interface and linguistic underdeterminacy. Relevance theory has contributed considerably to the emerging fields of experimental and developmental pragmatics, and it is in dialogue with philosophy of language.

General Overviews

Sperber and Wilson 1995 (first published in 1986) is the book that originally presented relevance theory. While parts of the book are now primarily of historical interest because of subsequent development of the theory, most of it remains current. Sperber and Wilson 1987 is a very useful précis of the theory as it was then, followed by commentary from linguists, philosophers, and psychologists, and a reply to the commentary by Sperber and Wilson. There are a number of excellent introductory handbook and encyclopedia articles on relevance theory, including Wearing 2015, Wilson 2009, Wilson 2016, and Wilson and Sperber 2004. Carston and Powell 2006 and Clark 2011 are accessible discussions of 21st-century developments. In addition, two handbook articles on pragmatics provide useful background: Recanati 1998 succinctly sets out the whole landscape from speech act theory and Grice’s pioneering work to modern linguistic pragmatics, and Sperber and Wilson 2005 is also an excellent introduction to pragmatics and is invaluable for students of relevance theory in showing how its founders view the field.

  • Carston, R., and G. Powell. 2006. Relevance theory: New directions and developments. In The Oxford handbook of the philosophy of language. Edited by E. LePore and B. C. Smith, 341–360. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A useful guide to developments that are still playing out, including lexical pragmatics and experimental pragmatics.

  • Clark, B. 2011. Recent developments in relevance theory. In The pragmatics reader. Edited by D. Archer and P. Grundy, 129–137. Oxford: Routledge.

    A very accessible guide both to changes that Sperber and Wilson made in their 1995 Postface and to subsequent developments.

  • Recanati, F. 1998. Pragmatics. In Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward Craig, 620–633. London: Routledge.

    An erudite introduction to pragmatics.

  • Sperber, D., and D. Wilson. 1987. Précis of Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 10:697–754.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X00055345

    A very useful short presentation of the original version of relevance theory, followed by brief peer commentary and a reply to the commentary by Sperber and Wilson.

  • Sperber, D., and D. Wilson. 1995. Relevance: Communication and cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

    The first edition of this book (published in 1986) was the first systematic presentation of relevance theory. The text of the second edition is identical except for a few additional endnotes and an important retrospective “Postface,” which made changes to the theory, both terminological and substantive. The early chapters contain a discussion of the Gricean background to relevance theory and the assumptions that relevance theory makes about cognition and communication. These are followed by discussions of how relevance theory can shed light on various phenomena, including metaphor and irony, speech acts and the interpretation of non-declarative sentences, and prosody and information structure.

  • Sperber, D., and D. Wilson. 2005. Pragmatics. In The Oxford handbook of contemporary philosophy. Edited by F. Jackson and M. Smith, 468–501. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A magisterial overview of pragmatics by the two founders of relevance theory.

  • Wearing, C. J. 2015. Relevance theory: Pragmatics and cognition. WIREs Cognitive Science 6.2: 87–95.

    DOI: 10.1002/wcs.1331

    Lucid introduction, written by a philosopher of language.

  • Wilson, D. 2009. Relevance theory. In The pragmatics encyclopedia. Edited by L. Cummings, 393–399. London: Routledge.

    An excellent and concise introduction to relevance theory. Perhaps the best place for students and the interested general reader to start.

  • Wilson, D. 2016. Relevance theory. In The Oxford handbook of pragmatics. Edited by Y. Huang. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A clear overview that also discusses recent developments, including work on epistemic vigilance.

  • Wilson, D., and D. Sperber. 2004. Relevance theory. In The handbook of pragmatics. Edited by L. R. Horn and G. L. Ward, 607–632. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Sets out the main theoretical commitments of relevance theory and some of its applications.

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