# 8.3: Grice’s Maxims of Conversation

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The connection between what is said and what is implicated, taking context into account, cannot be arbitrary. It must be rule-governed to a significant degree, otherwise the speaker could not expect the hearer to reliably understand the intended meaning.

Grice was not only the first scholar to describe the characteristic features of implicatures, but also the first to propose a systematic explanation for how they work. Grice’s lecture series at Harvard University in 1967, where he laid out his analysis of implicatures, triggered an explosion of interest in and research about this topic. It is sometimes cited as the birth date of Pragmatics as a separate field of study. Of course a number of authors have proposed revisions and expansions to Grice’s model, and we look briefly at some of these in the next chapter; but his model remains the starting point for much current work and is the model that we will focus on in this chapter.

Grice’s fundamental insight was that conversation is a cooperative activity. In order to carry on an intelligible conversation, each party must assume that the other is trying to participate in a meaningful way. This is true even if the speakers involved are debating or quarreling; they are still trying to carry on a conversation. Grice proposed that there are certain default assumptions about how conversation works. He stated these in the form of a general Cooperative Principle (5) and several specific sub-principles which he labeled “maxims” (6):

(5) The Cooperative Principle (Grice 1975: 45)
Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

(6) The Maxims of Conversation (Grice 1975: 45–46)

QUALITY: Try to make your contribution one that is true.
1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

QUANTITY:
1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

RELATION (or RELEVANCE): Be relevant.

MANNER: Be perspicuous.
1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
2. Avoid ambiguity.
3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
4. Be orderly.

It is important to remember that Grice did not propose the Cooperative Principle as a code of conduct, which speakers have a moral obligation to obey. A speaker may communicate either by obeying the maxims or by breaking them, as long as the hearer is able to recognize which strategy is being employed. The Cooperative Principle is a kind of background assumption: what is necessary in order to make rational conversation possible is not for the speaker to follow the principle slavishly, but for speaker and hearer to share a common awareness that it exists.

We might draw an analogy with radio waves. Radio signals start with a “carrier wave” having a specific, constant frequency and amplitude. The informative part of the signal, e.g. the audio frequency wave that represents the music, news report, or football match being broadcast, is superimposed as variation in the frequency (for FM) or amplitude (for AM) of the carrier wave. The complex wave form which results is transmitted to receivers, where the intended signal is recovered by “subtracting” the carrier wave. In order for the correct signal to be recovered, the receiver must know the frequency and amplitude of the carrier wave. Furthermore, the receiver must assume that variations from this base frequency and amplitude are intended to be meaningful, and are not merely interference due to lightning, sunspots, or the neighbors’ electrical gadgets.

The analogue of the wave form for pragmatic inferences is the sentence meaning, i.e. the literal semantic content of the utterance. The Cooperative Principle and maxims specify the default frequency and amplitude of the carrier wave. When a speaker appears to violate one of the maxims, a pragmatic inference is created; but this is only possible if the hearer assumes that the speaker is actually being cooperative, and thus the apparent violations are intended to be meaningful.

For example, Bill’s reply to Arthur’s request for directions to the post office in (2) appears to violate the maxim of relevance. Arthur might interpret the reply as follows: “Bill’s statement that he is a stranger here has nothing to do with the location of the post office. Bill seems to be violating the maxim of relevance, but I assume that he is trying to participate in a rational conversation; so he must actually be observing the conversational maxims, or at least the Cooperative Principle. I know that strangers in a town typically do not know where most things are located. I believe that Bill knows this as well, and would expect me to understand that his being a stranger makes it unlikely that he can provide the information I am requesting. If his reply is intended to mean ‘No, I cannot,’ then it is actually relevant and there is no violation. So in order to maintain the assumption that Bill is observing the Cooperative Principle, I must assume that this is what he intends to communicate.”

Of course, the sentence meaning is not just a means to trigger implicatures; it is itself part of the meaning which is being communicated. Utterance meaning is composed of the sentence meaning plus any pragmatic inference created by the specific context of use. Grice’s model is intended to explain the pragmatic part of the meaning. In example (2), the answer to Arthur’s literal yes-no question is conveyed by pragmatic inference, while the sentence meaning explains the reason for this answer, and so is felt to be more polite than a blunt “No” would be.

Grice described several specific patterns of reasoning which commonly give rise to conversational implicatures. First, there are cases in which there is an apparent violation, but no maxim is actually violated. Our analysis of example (2) was of this type. Bill’s statement I am a stranger here myself was an apparent violation of the maxim of relevance, but the implicature that it triggered actually was relevant; so there was no real violation. Two of Grice’s classic examples of this type are shown in (7–8). In both cases the second speaker’s reply is an apparent violation of the maxim of relevance, but it triggers an implicature that is relevant (You can buy petrol there in (7), Maybe he has a girlfriend in New York in (8)).2

(7) A: I am out of petrol [=gasoline].
B: There is a garage [=service station] around the corner.

(8) A: Smith doesn’t seem to have a girlfriend these days.
B: He has been paying a lot of visits to New York lately.

Second, Grice noted cases in which an apparent violation of one maxim is the result of conflict with another maxim. He illustrates this type with the example in (9).

(9) A: Where does C live?
B: Somewhere in the South of France.

B’s reply here seems to violate the maxim of quantity, specifically the first submaxim, since it is not as informative as would be appropriate in this context. A is expected to be able to infer that B cannot be more informative without violating the maxim of quality (second sub-maxim) by saying something for which he lacks adequate evidence. So the intended implicature is, “I do not know exactly where C lives.”

Third, Grice described cases in which one of the maxims is “flouted”, by which he meant a deliberate and obvious violation, intended to be recognized as such. Two of his examples of this type are presented in (10–11).

(10) A professor is writing a letter of reference for a student who is applying for a job as a philosophy teacher:
“Dear Sir, Mr. X’s command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular. Yours, etc.”3

(11) Review of a vocal recital:
“Miss X produced a series of sounds that corresponded closely with the score of Home sweet home.”4

The professor’s letter in (10) flouts the maxims of quantity and relevance, since it contains none of the information that would be expected in an academic letter of reference. The review in (11) flouts the maxim of manner, since there would have been a shorter and clearer way of describing the event, namely “Miss X sang Home sweet home.”

(12) a. War is war.
b. Boys will be boys.

(13) a. You are the cream in my coffee.
b. Queen Victoria was made of iron. (Levinson 1983: 110)
c. A fine friend he turned out to be!

Von Fintel & Matthewson (2008) consider the question of whether Grice’s Cooperative Principle and maxims hold for all languages. Of course, differences in culture, lexical distinctions, etc. will lead to differences in the specific implicatures which arise, since these are calculated in light of everything in the common ground between speaker and hearer.5 They note a single proposed counter example to Grice’s model, from Malagasy (Keenan 1974); but they endorse the response of Prince (1982), who points out that the speakers in Keenan’s examples actually do obey Grice’s principles, given their cultural values and assumptions. Their conclusion echoes that of Green (1990: 419):

[I]t would astonish me to find a culture in which Grice’s maxims were not routinely observed, and required for the interpretation of communicative intentions, and all other things being equal, routinely exploited to create implicature.

2 Examples (7–9) come from Grice (1975: 51).

3 Grice (1975: 52).

4 Grice (1975: 55).

5 See for example Matsumoto (1995).

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