by Ashley Lister
One of the biggest revelations I had during my years as a mature student came when we were introduced to Gricean Maxims and the Cooperative Principle.
I took linguistics by accident. There were a lot of boxes on the form and my pen was leaking. All it took was a dribble of ink in the wrong place, and the next thing I knew: I was sitting through a series of lectures discussing Politeness Theory, Pragmatics and, of course, Grice’s Cooperative Principle.
Grice, a renowned sociolinguist and philosopher, said:
“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.”
It’s a wordy quote, and starts to drift into obscurity before it’s completely finished. The whole thing could be adroitly summarised with the words ‘Talk properly and be nice.’ Grice seemed to realise this because he produced four maxims to explain how communication should (and invariably does) occur. According to Grice, effective communication comes about through each utterance observing (at least) one of the following maxims:
The maxim of quality – is it true?
The maxim of quantity – is too much being said? Or too little?
The maxim of relation – is it appropriate? Is it a non sequitur?
The maxim of manner – is it clear?
I’m not going to prattle on about Grice for much longer. I just wanted to share my joy from when I took this lesson and discovered how true and useful the whole theory could be. It’s proved especially useful for me as a writer because, when I’m putting words into the mouths of characters, I can now see how to make exchanges seem more credible.
A: Do you own a red shirt?
If B owns a red shirt, then the conversation has been successful and none of the maxims have been flouted or violated and there are no hidden implicatures in the exchange. Quality has been observed because B has told the truth. Quantity has been observed because B has given sufficient information. It’s a clear and appropriate response so that means the maxims of manner and relation are accounted for. But, what if the exchange varied slightly?
A: Do you own a red shirt?
B: No. I own an Alexander Amosu bespoke tailored shirt in crimson. It cost more than my car and it’s the one I wear on very special occasions and never lend out.
We can see in this example that the answer is still yes, B owns a red shirt. Yet B’s response begins with the word NO. Does this mean B is lying and violating the maxim of quality? No. B is only flouting the maxim because the remainder of the utterance explains the point. B owns a red shirt, but it’s not a mere shirt.
B goes on to name the tailor, hint at the expense of the shirt, and talk about its status as a treasured item of wardrobe apparel. Is this violating the maxims of quantity or relation? No. Again, B is only flouting maxims. The implicature in this utterance is: I’m sorry, A, but you’re not borrowing my red shirt.
Which, on the face of it, might seem like a dull branch of linguistics. But, when you think how this shapes conversation, it begins to seem extremely exciting. Compare the above example with the one below.
A: Do you have a red shirt?
A: May I borrow your red shirt?
B: No. It was expensive.
I know. I’m a word geek. And, in the real world, the application of Grice’s theory is as useful as a diarrhoea hat. But I still find it one of the most fascinating areas of linguistic study and it’s one of the key components I consider when creating dialogue for my communicating characters.