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 Topic 12 - Meaning between the lines (Session A) > Grice's Cooperative Principle > Task A skip topic navigation

Session Overview
Inference and the Discourse Architecture of Drama
Grice's Cooperative Principle
Practising Gricean Analysis
Top Girls
Conversational implicature and The Dumb Waiter
Gricean Self-Test
Useful Links

Grice's Cooperative Principle

Task A - What is Grice's Cooperative Principle in Conversation?

We will use Paul Grice's (1975) influential 'Cooperative Principle' approach to describe how we infer unstated meanings in ordinary conversations and apply this to dramatic conversations.

Your role in this task is to read and understand. Then, in subsequent tasks we will apply Gricean analysis to a series of brief examples to help you understand how to apply Gricean analysis.

Conversational cooperation

Grice says that when we communicate we assume, without realising it, that we, and the people we are talking to, will be conversationally cooperative - we will cooperate to achieve mutual conversational ends. This conversational cooperation even works when we are not being cooperative socially. So, for example, we can be arguing with one another angrily and yet we will still cooperate quite a lot conversationally to achieve the argument. This conversational cooperation manifests itself, according to Grice, in a number of conversational MAXIMS, as he calls them, which we feel the need to abide by. These maxims look at first sight like rules, but they appear to be broken more often than grammatical or phonological rules are, for example, as we will see later, and this is why Grice uses the term 'maxim' rather than 'rule'. Here are the four maxims (there may well be more) which Grice says we all try to adhere to in conversation. You can click on each one and get an explanatory comment:

The conversational maxims

Maxim of quantity (quantity of information)
  Give the most helpful amount of information.

This maxim is a bit like the temperature of baby bear's porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears - not too much, not too little, but just right! You may often feel that we are guilty of giving you too much information on this website. But we are trying to be helpful, honest!

Maxim of quality (quality of information)
  Do not say what you believe to be false.

It may seem at first sight that it would be simpler for this maxim to be 'Tell the truth'. But it is often difficult to be sure about what is true, and so Grice formulates this maxim in a way that, although it looks more complicated, is actually easier to follow. Evidence of the strength of this maxim is that most people find it difficult to lie when asked a direct question, and we tend to believe what people tell us without thinking, especially if it is written down (presumably because writers normally have more time than speakers to consider carefully what they say).

Maxim of relation
  Be relevant.

Note that if you join a conversation you can't just begin to talk about whatever you like. You have to connect what you want to say (make it relevant) to what is already being talked about. For example if everyone else is talking about their holidays and you want to talk about Spain, you'll need to connect the two topics together with a remark like 'I went on holiday to Spain last year . . .' Similarly, if, in an exam, you write an essay on a topic slightly different from the question asked you are likely to lose marks.

Maxim of manner
  Put what you say in the clearest, briefest, and most orderly manner.

Good evidence for this maxim is what you get penalised for when you write essays. If your are vague or ambiguous (i.e. not clear) you can lose marks; if you are over-wordy you can lose marks (readers don't like having to read extra words when they don't have to); if you do not present what you say in the most sensible order for your argument you can lose marks. And although you don't lose marks in conversation, you can lose friends if you do not abide by these maxims.

Breaking the maxims

We have already pointed out that the conversational maxims are broken rather more often than lingustic rules (e.g. in grammar). We can break the conversational maxims in two main ways:

We can VIOLATE them

This means that we break the maxims surreptitiously, or covertly, so that other people do not know. If we violate the maxim of quality, we lie. If we violate the maxim of quantity by not giving enough information, if someone finds out we can be accused of 'being economical with the truth', another deceit. If you like, violating the maxims amounts to breaking them 'illegally', just as people who steal are guilty of laws concerning theft. As with laws, some maxim violations can be more more heinous than others. Lying in a court of law is disapproved, but 'white lies', small lies to keep the social peace, are often thought as acceptable.

We can FLOUT them

If we FLOUT a maxim, we break it in a FLAGRANT (and often foregrounded) way, so that it is obvious to all concerned that it has been broken. If this happens, then it is clear that the speaker is intending the hearer to infer some extra meaning over and above what is said (evidence for this is that people of say things like 'He said he was happy, but the way he said it implied he wasn't really'. Grice distinguishes what he calls 'sentence meaning' from 'utterer's meaning' and he refers to an utterer's meaning indicated through a flout as an IMPLICATURE. So the implicature is what we have been referring to so far as the 'extra meaning'.


Re-examining the examples we have already looked at

It is the flouting of maxims which constitute their 'extra-breaking' character, as compared with linguistic rules. Essentially maxim-flouting is conversationally cooperative because all the participants in the conversation can see that a maxim has been broken on purpose by the speaker or writer in order to create an extra layer of meaning which is accessible by inference.

In the following tasks we will look again at the two examples we have already considered on the 'Inference and the discourse architecture of drama' page. In each case when we analyse a text or discourse we will need to consider (1) what maxim(s) have been broken, (2) whether the break constitutes a violation or a flout and (3) what implicature, if any, arises as a result of the break. Of course we have already covered (3) in the answers to the exercises on the 'Inference and the discourse architecture of drama' page, so we don't need to go through that again in any detail.



Grice, H. P. (1975) 'Logic and conversation'. In P. Cole and J. Morgan (eds) Studies in Syntax and Semantics III: Speech Acts, New York: Academic Press, pp. 183-98.


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