Cooperative Communication and Grice’s 4 Maxims

Some time ago I promised to offer you a more in-depth look at pragmatics, the principle of cooperative communication, and the 4 Gricean Maxims. I owe it to all of you patient readers to deliver on that promise, so let me just apologize for the delay and pick up where I left off.

I’ve been positing on this blog that effective communication in a foreign language requires in-depth understanding of the source and target cultures. And that the prerequisites for understanding utterances are both language structures (morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics) and knowledge structures (schemata, scripts, cultural conventions).

Pragmatics is the study of speaker meaning, and it’s always contextual. To understand what people are communicating we need:

  • linguistic context (or co-text),
  • situational context and
  • preexisting (background) knowledge about their life and cultural framework.

What Exactly Do You Mean?

How do we know what people intend to communicate? And how can we ensure that communication is effective?

In the English-speaking world, one of the essential theories in pragmatics is Paul Grice’s cooperative principle in communication, and his four conversational maxims. In his own words (1975): “Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.”

In order to be understood correctly (or in a particular way), participants in a conversation must act cooperatively and mutually accept one another.

Paul Grice (1975) has boiled this down to 4 conversational maxims:

  • The Maxim of Quality – DO NOT DECEIVE (do not lie, and do not say things for which you lack evidence)
  • The Maxim of Quantity – OFFER JUST THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF INFORMATION (no more, no less than required for the current purposes of the exchange)
  • The Maxim of Relation  – BE RELEVANT

When we begin a conversation, we naturally assume the counterpart is cooperative in his communication, and we naturally expect to see these principles followed to a certain extent, or the conversation will become extremely muddled and eventually break down.

An honest cooperative communicator, for instance, will use so-called “hedges” such as “sort of”, “kind of”, “probably”, “I think”, “I feel” to indicate that they are not sure what they’re saying is sufficiently correct, and thus avoid breaking the Quality rule.

But what happens when these maxims are flouted or violated on purpose? Grice himself found it quite exciting. When the apparent meaning of a sentence does not conform to the Gricean maxims, yet we are convinced the other person is nonetheless obeying the cooperative principle, this can lead to interesting hidden meanings called “implicatures“.


Q: “How do you like that painting?”  A: “Well, the frame is nice…


Q: “Do you want to play some tennis?” A: “It’s raining.

These examples obviously flout the relevance maxim, yet we cannot suspect the other person (usually someone close to us) is being irrelevant. The resulting implicature is that the listener disagrees with the speaker’s proposition/idea/taste in art. What was not expressed becomes more important than what was actually said. Thus, flouting of the maxims can become a deliberate strategy in communication, in order to attain a particular effect. Sarcasm and irony are often the result.

Some of the criticism directed at Grice’s maxims is that conversations and communication, as all social behavior, are culturally determined and therefore no script is universal. Politeness theories centered on face-threatening acts (Brown and Levinson, 1987) may apply better to more indirect cultures, where the very notion of conversational cooperation has entirely different connotations (to cooperate is to save face, or information ownership is a form of prestige, etc.).

But about that, some other time. 😉

#communication #cooperation #linguistics


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