A speaker says, "I like red". Here are a few of the many things they could mean[1] by that. 

  1. I like red.
  2. I want you to believe that I like red.
  3. I want myself to believe that I like red, and this can be assisted by a public statement.
  4. I think that the community valence of red should be higher. I’m ready to defend this position if sufficiently provoked, but this will be a battle for both parties, so I don’t recommend attacking it unless you are very confident in your position.
  5. I want to hint that I like Communism, but for various reasons I feel uncomfortable saying that more plainly.
  6. You should associate me with the cool people (who like red).
  7. I’ve recognized that you identify with liking red. As such, I want to express my commitment to support you.
  8. Due to incentives related to (7), our culture has internalized norms around people professing likes for things unique to specific tribes. When I say "I like red", I'm showing that I respect these norms, even though none of us might understand the origins or purposes of these norms.
  9. I’m sure you recognize that by all accounts I should probably hate red. But I know that liking it would be more convenient for your situation. This discrepancy makes my saying a more clear signal of loyalty.
  10. I’ve recognized that group X is associated with the liking or disliking of redness, and would like to express my loyalties accordingly. This will help craft very specific alliances, though at the possible expense of making some enemies.
  11. I recognized that you've developed a positive connotation towards people who do (10). I'd like to position myself with these people, even though I don't understand the background context.
  12. (Related to 11): Fred from accounting says "I like red" a lot, and he's successful. I might as well say it and hope for the best.
  13. I just want you to know that I’m talking to you, the particular information doesn’t matter much. This could be useful to signal that I'm willing to be social, and/or that I see you as a friend/colleague/potential partner.


A listener might pick up that intended meaning, or they might learn different things than the speaker intended. These could include:

B1. I have background knowledge that people who like red are overwhelming represented by tribe Y, which have characteristics M and K, so I can infer that the speaker has characteristics M and K.

B2. The speaker thinks they like red. However, I can be confident that they have a really confused or overgeneralized definition of red, and haven’t thought about it very hard.

B3. Null. The costs of interpreting and remembering this phrase exceed the expected benefits, so it's being ignored.

B4. Null. I've already been able to predict with 100% accuracy that the speaker would say "I like red", so this gives me zero new information.

B5. I was expecting the speaker to say something more relevant in their own father’s eulogy. I’m going to infer that they are pretty naive about social environments. 

Additional suggestions of meanings are appreciated. (Leave as comments)

With more reflection, one could likely come up with a possible context such that "I like red" could mean any other statement, though most of the options would be trivial. Perhaps this process of trying to list interesting potential meanings and interpretations is futile, because the space is too large and ill-defined. However, my hunch is that there are some interesting subgroups, most of which are presented above in some shape.


I think these sorts of meanings are very common. There are three obvious reasons for such meanings:

  1. Communication is expensive, so we compress it a whole lot. Sometimes context fills in the gap, but often it doesn't completely fill it in. This means that we often lose clarity, even when we would prefer otherwise.
  2. In many situations, vagueness, ambiguity, or dog-whistling (sending information very particularly with a subgroup who you believe is likely to actually understand it) are preferable or necessary.
  3. Communication isn't always deliberate. People either subconsiously lean towards communication with coded meanings that they think might be advantageous to them, or they repeat internalized patterns that they don't understand (but predict will be advantageous).


In the post on Implicature Conflation, abramdemski suggests that people "simply stop equivocating." If taken at face value, I'm not sure I totally agree. However, I do think that communication styles that come with vagueness and multiple levels of meta, represent significant costs. I imagine that we generally want to encourage more plain communication, but I expect that this desire will take extended effort for long periods of time to make progress on.

I would like to see better categorization/ontology of these sorts of communication. The Simulacrum Levels seem too simple (only 4 linear levels) and opaque.

Simulacrum Levels 

Much of this is related to the concept of Simulacrum Levels. I think (1) is at Simulacrum level 1, (2) is at Simulacrum level 2, (5, 7, and 10) with Simulacrum level 3, and maybe (8,11,12) with Simulacrum level 4. I'm really unsure about this though, I find the levels confusing.

Conversational Implicature

As abramdemski wrote

In case you're not familiar with the term, "conversational implicature" refers to all the meaning that's not explicit. For example, if I say "you didn't do the laundry yet?" I might (depending on context) be implying "you should really do it now". This is implicature, because I didn't say it explicitly; it is inferred from context.

Arguably, almost all of these examples are about information that's not explicit, so might count as conversational implicature.

Ask vs. guess culture

Relevant post here. Guess culture requires more interpretation of things; it has more implicature.

Language Games

I believe some of the work on implicature was inspired by Wittgenstien's work around language games. My impression is that the newer work is better developed (though not as developed as I'd like) but it might be useful to point out the history.



[1]: Here, mean roughly means "attempt to convey" or "reason for saying"

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Another meaning could be: I want to raise the salience of the issue ‘Red vs Not Red’, I want to convey that ‘Red vs Not Red’ is an underrated axis. I think this is also an example of level 4?

Multiply all of the above by all the possible definitions of "like" and "red" and any context relevant counterfactuals.

For example:

  1. Speaker could have said love instead of Like, so they don't love red. And every other point on the spectrum.
  2. Like can also mean "am similar to" (not grammatically correct usage here... but that a whole 'nuther can of worms)
  3. Red is a color, but could also be referring to a person (usually one with red hair)
  4. There may be other options, and "I like red" is expressing an ordinal preference among them.

Also, too, maybe the speaker actually said "I, like, read" meaning that they viewed written material in a casual way and derived meaning from it, and it was mis-heard.

Very true. In this particular set of examples, I was holding the specific word meanings as pretty fixed, but in common usage, discrepancies here are a really big deal. 

There are really so many things that a simple phrase could mean.

There are more shades around 1 + 2:

  • I have a positive feeling about the color red right now.
  • I think I like red.
  • I think I like red and me saying this is expressing more the fact of having discovered this than the fact itself.

So, this is now non-autists think all the time.

I just want to flag that I'm not sure what you mean here.

I think that when people on autistic spectrum say "I like red", they mean the option 1 (but normies often interpret it as something else, which sometimes gets the speaker in trouble); and when they hear someone else say "I like red", they assume that the person meant the option 1 (often, it is not the case). Learning that the other options exists is an important part of developing the "theory of normie mind".

How much this is literally true, I don't know, it was meant as a "ha ha only serious" joke.

Ah, got it. 

I'd flag that I don't think non-autists literally think this way. It's not like they consider all 13 options and select #7 or something. My impression is that ~90% of the work happens intuitively or subconsciously. Often a person would agree to their intended meaning after having it explained to them, but they wouldn't naturally articulate it themselves.

To be more clear, this isn't exactly how non-autists think, it's more how nerds who are trying to understand non-autists think, think.

I think some of the time they'd agree with the clarified meaning... but also "often" they would treat it as an adversarial clarification and perhaps threateningly insinuate that you should stop adding clarity near their game.

(For reference: I'm not a nerd, I'm a language geek, and I think the main barrier to making really plausible and "human feeling" chatbots is (in some sense) figuring out to make them capable enough of manipulative insinuation (and defense from such attacks) that their powers start to feel like maybe they NEED to be Friendly for the machinery to feel safe to release into the wild?)

[1]: Here, mean means "attempt to convey"

It seems like you're not using this definition consistently. For example, in (3), the speaker doesn't care that any information at all is conveyed since the purpose is reinforcing their own belief. Several of the others appear to be beliefs that would motivate someone to say "I like red" rather than what they intend to convey to the listener (in (7) what is intended to be conveyed is "I'm committed to support you.")

You're right, I wrote this bit early on, then didn't refactor.

I just changed it a bit. I'm sure with more thought we could have a better definition here. 

5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12 are all variations on the same theme of "I want to be associated with a particular sub-set of humans" That is Simulacra level 3 behavior. And I don't think they really count as separate meanings.

8 (where the mouth noises "I like red" are just a thing our tribe does, like "ghesudheit") is a separate "meaning" from that (and is kind of a wrap-around Level 1 simulacra: you are accurately stating that you are a member of the tribe, and it is common knowledge that the mouth noise "I like red" carries no information relating to the speakers opinions about "red")

5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12 are all variations on the same theme of "I want to be associated with a particular sub-set of humans" That is Simulacra level 3 behavior. And I don't think they really count as separate meanings.

I agree that those have that basic thing in common. Whether they "count as separate meanings" mostly depends on how big you decide a "meaning" is; this seems a lot like a semantic question to me. I could easily imagine some circumstances where caring about the differences between some of these might be useful.

and is kind of a wrap-around Level 1 simulacra: you are accurately stating that you are a member of the tribe, and it is common knowledge that the mouth noise "I like red" carries no information relating to the speakers opinions about "red"

I think we mostly agree, though I'd clarify:

  1. In many circumstances, this ritual still tells us something about you liking red. If you really, really hated red, the person might notice this and be reluctant to say this. For example, "Nice to see you" is a fairly ritualized phrase, but it still carries some literal meaning.
  2. "you are accurately stating that you are a member of the tribe" -> This is one thing that a ritual could be useful for, but there are many other meanings rituals can point at.

Atheists say "God bless you" to other Atheists and nobody bats an eye or questions thier disbelief. People say "f u" all the time without any expectation of an difficult anatomical act. Some phrases are just arbitrary mouth noises that signal membership in "the tribe of people who use that phrase"