What are Grice's Maxims or The Cooperative Principles

In 1975, a linguist called H.P. Grice conducted research into the fundamental mechanisms that allow co-operation in a conversation to function so well. Why is it that the person with whom I’m speaking understands what I mean, even when I don’t actually say what I mean? In this way, what intrigued him the most was how we, as competent language users, make desired meanings out of words that don't actually correspond to these desired meanings. An example of this may be idioms – phrases whose meaning doesn’t directly correspond to the meaning of each individual words.

So, he concluded, after much research, that in order for a conversation to succeed, the participants assume that everyone must be participating and aiming for a mutual goal in the conversation. He split the fundamental ways in which we converse into four categories, known as Grice's Maxims or the Co-operative Principles!

What do the Maxims represent?

Grice’s research, like many linguists, aimed to reflect what we already do with a language. As such, the Co-operative principles are a list of how we already use language, not how we should use it. The principles demonstrate to us how we use language successfully, and if these conditions are not met, our language is unsuccessful. People are cooperating "by acting according to the conversational maxims" [Pavlidou, 1991, cited in Hadi].

The maxims:

1) Maxim of Quantity

This maxim means that language functions the best when we neither say too much nor too little. And, as a listener, we assume that anything the speaker retains is of no importance to the conversation (i.e. don't add anything irrelevant) and that nothing is said that hasn't been asked by the listener. All that is spoken is a means to help achieve the mutual aim of the conversation.

Make your contribution as informative as is required

2) Maxim of Relevance

His second maxim tells us that what we say must be relevant i.e. within the boundaries that have been defined by the on-going topics. This is because, if we were to keep returning to past topics or discuss a "random" topic, the conversation will be disrupted, and thus, the mutual goal and reason for conversing will never be reached!

Be relevant

3) Maxim of Manner

This maxim's main focus is on making a conversation clear and coherent. And, to do this, we must avoid ambiguity in what we say. This could be through the order in which we address points of information as well as the semantics and lexis of our word choices. To illustrate this, a teacher would address their class as they would understand it: the words chosen are equal to that of their age and ability.

Be orderly, be brief, and avoid ambiguity

4) Maxim of Quality

This is the nature and character of what we say: whether the information we are giving is true or not! It states that we shouldn't be knowingly untruthful and dishonest, and, within that, mustn't state anything that we lack evidence for.

Do not say that for which you lack evidence

Flouting the Maxims

Although what was said above is true, sometimes we don't follow these rules yet still communicate successfully. As mentioned above, Grice was particularly interested in how we communicate in these situations. He concluded that, when we flout, we understand each other through 'pragmatic force'.

But what is flouting? In short, this means that a participant is still co-operating in conversation despite the fact that they seem to be violating a maxim, which, in theory, should mean that they don't want to converse.

When we flout the maxims on purpose, it's called 'conversation implicature'.

This can be done with all the maxims!

For example:

A verbose response is flouting the Maxim of Quantity. However, spelling a word out to intentionally deceive a small child who cannot yet spell is flouting the Maxim of Quality, but the speaker is still participating in the conversation.

How Does This Work?

Conversation implicature works because, whilst what has been said seems to be irrelevant, the other participant assumes that they're still participating, leading the listener to try and assume what was actually meant.

As an illustration, imagine a teacher, after having been shown a written piece of work by a student, comments about his handwriting. To the student, this seems irrelevant; however, they are assuming that the teacher is still wanting to participate. As a result, the child infers a meaning. In this case, his work isn't good enough, but the teacher had to find something to praise!

In brief, the listener assumes that the speaker assumes that the listener can work out the implied meaning.

Criticism of Grice's Maxims

When analysing the effectiveness of Grice's theory, we must compare how much we, as a society, have changed and developed since this research was done.

For example, back then, communications via an electronic mode didn’t exist, yet now, it seems to be one of the primary modes of communication. So, ask yourself: do Grice's Maxims take this into account? Well, in short, yes and no!

In his theory, it assumes, to a certain extent, that communication is instant and face-to-face. However, through an online medium, they're not. Arguably, it takes a lot more effort to type than speak. Consequently, we may be breaking the Maxim of Quantity purposefully. Despite this, communication via messaging is still successful, no?

Nonetheless, the beautiful thing about language is that language changes to suit the needs of its users. As with text messaging, we have developed abbreviations and used symbols to communicate our meaning. This, however, creates ambiguity – avoiding the Maxim of Manner. This begs the question: is our language not successful or efficient in reaching our mutual goals in conversation as we use purposefully ambiguous language?

Secondly, this experiment was only conducted in Britain. And, according to some leading linguists, a conversation is culturally determined, meaning it cannot be universally applied. For example, phatic talk (like small talk) is big in Britain. Phrases like "how are you?" exist when, in actual fact, their meaning is quite diluted. I don't know about you, but I don't even think about how I reply, it's instant! To clarify, in this situation, sharing information isn't the main reason for its existence but politeness is. The maxims assume sharing information is the primary purpose of a conversation.

Wait! If you don't share information in a conversation and have no goal, you're not participating. In that case, you can't apply Grice's Maxims. This is all part of the criticisms of this hypothesis. In my opinion, however, linguistic theories need not be universally pertinent as language, in contrast to the popular Chomskian linguistics, is perhaps a cultural process [Hadi, 2012]. As such, cultures differ, so why not language rules? In fact, it must be recognised that Grice himself never stated that his theory had a universal application. Equally, in small talk, the goal may not be to share information but to demonstrate politeness.


Watch this video below by Miss Millard to watch Grice's Maxims in action on the Big Bang Theory!


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