Ever since my last blogpost about discourse, I have been receiving requests to delve a little deeper into the area of pragmatics. It reminded me that a previous BESIG interview about pragmatics and politeness had led to the same kind of requests which I had not had the time to devote to before.
This has spurred me to share some of the reading and research I had previously done on this subject here.
Here’s Part 1 (of 3) of a summary of Grice’s maxims and implicatures – often considered to be the basis of any study into the pragmatics of language.
The bibliography will follow at the end of Part 3.
1.1 Why Grice?
A lot has been written about the work of the philosopher H. Paul Grice and his contribution to the study of pragmatics. After a long spate of linguistic study focused solely on truth conditional semantics and the grammar, syntax and semantic meanings of words controlled fully by the speaker, Grice was the first to propose a set of principles to describe the nature of conversation as a co-operation between the participants (Cook 1989), and his Co-operative Principles (CP) and maxims have been the basis for the further exploration of the nature and power of what a speaker means and implies, and how it is understood by the hearer. His notion of conversational implicature is believed to be ‘one of the single most important ideas in pragmatics’ ( Levinson 1983:97) and even his greatest critics, such as Davis (1998:1) admitted his theories to be an ‘important phenomenon’, a major achievement’ and ‘a breakthrough in linguistics’.
In order to understand Grice’s theories, it is perhaps useful to first consider J.L. Austin’s ideas on language. Austin was Grice’s teacher at Oxford University, and was reacting against his contemporaries’ views that language was full of ambiguities, imprecision and contradictions which needed to be refined and purified (Thomas 1995:29), by purporting that the way ordinary people used everyday language could shed light on how people identified the distinctions that were worth making (Austin 1962). Consider this example.
Emma: Can you find out if the tube is running?
Tom: The internet is down.
On a purely semantic level, it seems that Emma is asking about Tom’s ability to obtain the information about the London underground and Tom’s answer seems to be an irrelevant one about the internet not working. However, the mere locutionary force of the words does not help us to understand that Emma’s question was a request for help and Tom’s answer implied that he was unable to do so. Austin (1962) introduced the idea of there being an illocutionary force in such implicit perfomatives, (in this case, that of the functions request and refusal) which we use in speech to produce an effect.
Grice’s systematic study of such cases where there was a significant difference between speaker meaning and semantic meaning led him to put forward a theory that could explain how we bridge the gap between the locutionary and illocutionary force of a context-dependent utterance in order to make sense of each other. While his principles bring logic into the use of language, they also account for the hedging used in everyday language (by the way, I might be wrong but…), and provide explanations for the phenomena of metaphors, irony, tautology, and hyperbole.
1.2 Grice in the foreign language classroom
Some teachers might argue that the interpretation of an utterance is universal, and that because students can already interact and communicate in their L1, the time in the classroom should be spent on the formal skills and knowledge of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar (Cook 1989). As a result of this assumption, the indirect communication explained by Grice’s implicatures are often not highlighted or dealt with in language coursebooks (Bouton, in Hinkel 1999).
However, if we were to consider the fact that the same utterance in the same context could be interpreted differently in different cultures (Keenan 1976, Bouton 1988 & 1994), it might explain why even fairly advanced students have trouble understanding the nuances of utterances, the intentions of the speakers, and an area of particular interest to me, English humour. This causes frequent cases of misunderstanding and confusion to the language student who lives among native speakers and/or is exposed to comedy and films through the global dominance of Hollywood. Perhaps the interpretation of utterances is not wholly transferable as previously assumed, and needs to be covered in the English language classroom. The issue of the universality of CP and its maxims will be dealt with after we look at the principles themselves.
2. The Co-operative Principle (CP) and the Maxims
2.1 What is CP?
In his paper Logic and Conversation, Grice (1975) proposed that all talk exchanges are cooperative efforts where participants recognise a common purpose or mutually-accepted direction of the conversation. If we were to take the dialogue between Emma and Tom in (i) at face value (i.e. the locutionary force of the utterance), the utterances seem disconnected, and thus irrational and illogical. The assumption that Emma and Tom were guided by the cooperative principle helps us to understand that Tom’s reply is indeed a relevant answer to Emma’s question. Grice’s CP is worded as follows:
Make your 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.
Grice then goes on to specify how CP is followed in the form of 4 maxims.
Quantity: 1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
Quality: 1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
Relation: 1. Be relevant
Manner: Be perspicuous.
- Avoid obscurity of expression.
- Avoid ambiguity.
- Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity)
- Be orderly.
Despite the unfortunate name of ‘maxims’ and use of imperatives, Grice (1975) emphasises that they describe ways of people’s behaviour which they have learned from childhood, and that they are not only something we should follow but that which is rational and ‘reasonable for us to follow’. Levinson (1983) recognises them as assumptions and guidelines that help us to use language effectively and efficiently, and thus should not be considered as rules of any sort. CP is by no means idealising human beings as having an intrinsically co-operative or altruistic personality, but refers to the assumptions about communication one operates on, even when we are in an argument (Cameron, 2001).
The term ‘implicature’ was coined by Grice (1975) to account for what the speaker implied, suggested or meant, as opposed to the semantic meaning of the words said. The conveyance of implicature enables one to determine the meaning of an utterance via inference because of the assumption that the participants of a conversation are adhering to CP and its maxims (Yule, 1996).
In what Grice (1975) terms ‘conventional implicatures’, the conventional meaning of the words conveys what the utterance implies and is not based on CP, as the following illustrates:
(ii) He was on social welfare but was not lazy.
The above sentence implies that people on welfare are expected to be lazy since the word ‘but’ generates the implicature that what follows will contrast the presupposed expectation. Thomas (1995) lists words like ‘but’, ‘even’, ‘therefore’, ‘yet’ and ‘for’ as words that could carry conventional implicatures. As such words are not context-dependent for their interpretation, and are often covered in the formal studies of a language learner, I shall move on to a category of more interest to the pragmaticist, conversational implicatures, that which is communicated based on the assumptions about a conversation’s rational nature, as stated in CP and its maxims (Levinson, 2000).
The nature of conversational implicatures have been characterised by Grice (1975) as such. In order for the hearer to work out the implicature, the following rationalising takes place:
1) The speaker is observing the maxims.
2) The speaker is saying X to imply Y. In fact, he would not say X if he did not want to imply Y.
3) The speaker knows that the listener would understand Y from X, and intends it to be so.
There has been much debate over the categorization and definitions of conversational implicatures, which has led me to sub-categorized this section in a controversial way. Grice (ibid) himself provides the sub-categories of generalised conversational implicatures (GCIs) and particularized conversational implicatures (PCIs). Levinson (1983:104), however, introduces the term standard implicatures to refer the ones expressed when a speaker is observing the maxims, while more complex implicatures are communicated through what Grice (ibid) calls the flouting of the maxims in the form of PCIs.
2.2.1 Standard Implicatures
Although Grice (1978) indicated that he wished to withhold the term implicature from inferences that only express the maxims themselves (as opposed to flouting the maxims), I have started with this category in order to illustrate how we unconsciously abide by CP and use it to make sense of the utterances we hear. I shall use examples in my classroom to show that, sometimes, the observance of CP might be universal and transferable from my learners’ L1.
Me: How many siblings have you got?
Student: I have 5 brothers.
I can infer from common understanding of this maxim, albeit unconscious, that the student is being as informative as possible and thus implying that he has no more than 5 brothers, although semantically, the statement could imply that he has more than 5 brothers.
When the student asserts that he has 5 brothers in (ii), I believe he indeed has 5 brothers and has adequate evidence that this is so.
Consider also this question.
(iv) Student: What does ‘greedy’ mean?
This implicates that the student is asking this question sincerely, does not know what ‘greedy’ means, and requires this information. (Levinson, 1983)
Me: Is Claudio in school today?
Student: He’s sick.
The student’s utterance is not a non-sequitor one. It implies that Maria was not in school by giving the reason that she was ill.
(vi) Student: I did my homework and went to sleep.
Although the ‘and’ seems ambiguous semantically and could be taken to mean ‘also’, the meaning ‘and then’ is understood.
2.2.2 Generalized Conversational Implicatures
Although most discourse analysts tend to assume that pragmatically-inferred meaning is always dependent on the context surrounding the utterance and the observance of CP and its maxims (Carston, 2004), GCIs are those based on ‘general expectations of how language is normally used’ (Levinson 2000:22), and no special background knowledge of the context is required to make the inferences (Yule 1996). GCIs could be said to be somewhere between conventional implicatures and PCIs.
(vii) He went out with a woman.
The sentence implicates that the woman is not his wife, family member or platonic friend (Grice 1975).
(viii) I repaired a roof.
Without the use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’, one can infer that this was not the speaker’s roof.
2.2.3 Particularized Conversational Implicatures
In situations where the speaker blatantly fails to observe a maxim, he is ‘flouting’ and such flouting is used to generate PCIs, which the hearer will in turn infer from. The procedure is termed ‘exploitation’. (Grice 1975)
Exploiting the maxim of Quantity
(ix) Sharon has recently watched a film that was hyped up in the media as sensational.
David: How was the film?
Sharon: Well, the costumes were nice.
Sharon is flouting the maxim of quantity by not giving enough of the information required by David’s question. David knows that Sharon has flouted the maxim but has no reason to think that Sharon is being uncooperative. He, thus, infers that Sharon is implicating that the film was awful. Such flouting is used to create what is called indirect criticism (Bouton, 1994).
Tautologies like ‘a lie is a lie’ or ‘first introduced’ could be seen as flouting this maxim by unnecessary repetition. However, the implicature generated by the former might be telling us that the speaker is unwilling to make exceptions to what might be meant as a white lie, and the later might implicate the first occasion when something was introduced (e.g. the term ‘implicature’), although it might have been introduced by several people in different places.
Exploiting the maxim of Quality
(x) You are an angel. (metaphor)
(xi) Upon seeing Shelly online every time Michael logs on, he comments,
Michael: You are always online.
Shelly: Me? Never! I never use the internet. (irony)
Brian has just burnt his dinner.
Anna: You’re such a great cook. (sarcasm/irony)
(xiii) I can eat a horse. (hyperbole)
(xiv) Upon seeing that a wedding would cost £30,000,
Rakesh: It’s a bit expensive, isn’t it? (understatement)
The above examples all flout the maxim of quality and both participants expect each other to realise that the utterances are not to be taken literally. They could be used as stylistic devices, to create humour, or just simply to be interesting.
Notice, however, that each of these utterances requires a different set of reasoning to work out the implicature intended. (x) requires the hearer to make comparisons between the concept of an angel and one who is kind and saves another, the semantic meanings of (xi) and (xii) are opposites of the implicated meaning, while (xii) is overstates and (xiv) understates what the speaker really means. Grice does not seem to explain how an interlocutor is to know which set of reasoning to use when such flouting is carried out.
Exploiting the maxim of Relevance
Dale accidentally mentions Steve’s ex-wife in a conversation with Steve and Rachel. Rachel quickly changes the topic.
Rachel: What do you think of the coffee here?
Rachel’s blatant flouting of the maxim is used to show Dale that he has committed a social faux pax and in danger of treading dangerous waters.
Exploiting the maxim of Manner
The parents are talking in front of their toddler.
Dad: We won’t B-U-Y the T-O-Y today.
Through being intentionally ambiguous and spelling out the words, the father is implicating that there’s something he can’t say directly and expects the mother to infer that he does not want the child to know what they are talking about.
2.2.4 Other categories of non-observance
It is not always that the non-observance of a maxim is done blatantly with the intention of creating an implicature. Grice (1975:49) mentions several ways where a maxim is not adhered to, aside from flouting: violating, violating because of a clash and opting out. He later added a fourth category: infringing; and others have purported a fifth: suspending (Thomas1995:72).
Grice has not only been criticised for not always using the terms consistently but also for failing to address the issue of how the hearer is to distinguish between the types of non-observance involved in working out the implicature intended (ibid:90). This could explain why some girls spend hours trying to work out what the voicemail message left by their date really implies. The following categories might somehow be controversial as different writers have chosen to group them in different ways.
Unlike flouting, violation is not meant to be noticed by the hearer perhaps because the speaker intends to deceive or hold back information (Cameron, 2001:78). Some speakers, such as politicians, might be intentionally ambiguous so as not to commit themselves to a proposition (ibid), hence violating a maxim.
Grice (1975) explains that sometimes a speaker cannot fulfil one maxim without violating another, and is faced with a clash. In example (xvii), the student cannot answer the question fully without being long-winded, and chooses to forgo the maxim of quality.
Teacher: What did you do this weekend?
One might opt out of a maxim by clearly showing that he is unable to cooperate, perhaps due to legal or ethical reasons, or the need to protect someone else (Thomas, 1995). The speaker might say, ‘I can’t tell you that,’ or ‘I promised not to say’.
A speaker sometimes infringes a maxim because he is unable to abide by it (ibid). Infringement could take place if the speaker is not particularly eloquent, is drunk, or simply can’t speak the language well (as with a child or foreign language speaker). Here is a classroom example where my student infringes the maxims of quantity and manner due to a lack of language skills.
Teacher: How was your holiday?
Critics of Grice claim that there are language communities that do not adhere to the maxims (Gazdar, 1979), and Keenan’s (1976) example of Malagasy speakers, who often make their conversations as uninformative as possible (see section 3.2), is often used to suggest that there are occasions on which Grice’s maxims are inapplicable and need to be suspended. Alongside Gazdar and Keenan, Grice has had many critics since he first postulated the CP and its maxims.
In the next part, I will be looking at the criticisms of Grice’s theories, including the exploration of the politeness principle, the universality of the Co-operative Principle, and how English humour and irony might or might not apply in cross-cultural contexts.