Teaching Grice's Maxims


In a discussion with Siddharth Bhat, I whipped up a narrative of how I wished conversation analysis in linguistics were taught to us at an undergraduate level.


Remove yourself as a human and look at conversations from the perspective of an alien. You are told to study the subculture of human communication using the limited knowledge of semantics you have gained through your scholarly studies back home. So you labour in your trenchcoat, learning words and sentences, until you now know how to construct well formed sentences, and you understand the meaning of a string of words. You can now naturally discern the meaning of phrases (idioms take time, but you sure have the literal sense understood!) and you know the various syntactic constructions well.

Bravo, you know the language! Can you speak to a native speaker naturally?

The answer: Ehhh…..

Listing Grice’s Maxims

Your evolved alien brain has learned to recognise some meta theories of human communication, and you succinctly summarize it as follows:

  • The maxim of quantity, where one tries to be as informative as one possibly can, and gives as much information as is needed, and no more.
  • The maxim of quality, where one tries to be truthful, and does not give information that is false or that is not supported by evidence.
  • The maxim of relation, where one tries to be relevant, and say things that are pertinent to the discussion.
  • The maxim of manner, when one tries to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and where one avoids obscurity and ambiguity.

It is almost a revelation how simple the content of human communication can be when boiled down to the maxims refered above. You are please with your discovery, especially when you realize that H.P. Grice, someone known to have studied human conversation, came to the exact same results in 1989.

You also realize that human communication is an act of cooperation, and that these “cooperative” agents aim to contribute when required, expected and towards the accepted purpose of the conversation. Both you and the late Grice coincidentally label this the cooperative principle. Fascinating!

Does it all seem too simple?

You start to wonder now whether this succinct summary is not the most useful to you. Walking on the streets of your host city and observing the sights, you realize that the sun is behind the buidlings, and you do not know what time it is. You ask a man walking by, “What is the time, sir?”

He says: “I don’t have a watch,” and walks away, presuming the conversation is over.

To you, the conversation is far from over. You had NEVER inquired about the status of his watch possession. You have realized that there is no meaning to his random invocation, but it leaves you quite befuddled. But you are an intelligent species. You know how to deduce the notion of context from this conversation, but it takes you a full day. So you idle by a park bench, wondering the implications of this nightmarish scenario, where relevant world information is now an assumed part of discourse.

You forget the time, and by the time you get home to your host family, they are worried about you. You have not contacted them all day, as is the contract of you staying with them. As you walk in, they stare at you and ask “What is the time?” Your earth host parental figures glare at you angrily.

Your brain rockets into the newfound knowledge you have just acquired, and you say “Oh, I did not have a watch!” And are immediately confined to your room, asked to reconsider both your answer and your actions.

This leaves you mightly perplexed, of course.

Flouting Grice’s Maxims

You learn something that day: flouting Grice’s maxims is one of the most interesting things in human discourse, and once these maxims are flouted, it involves the notion of both world knowledge and speaker context. It is a rule of thumb to observe the disfluencies from Grice’s maxims, to understand what the utterance actually means.

Then on, you start to observe the conversations around you. The first thing that you notice: A cooperative speaker can intentionally disobey a maxim, as long as (s)he or the context provides enough indicators for the hearer to notice it. You find that a cooperative speaker is often one who is willing to explain the entire conversation using cues from past conversations, your relationship, and even the surrounding, attempting to make sure that you understand the message in a more creative manner.

You learn that people don’t really think that the weather is great when it is raining (and you have to write a profuse apology to your leaders back home about you misguiding them on human associations with weather).

You also start to realize something more indirect, that a speaker may not always be cooperative.

This leads to brand new plethora of problems, and your trust in the validity of a conversation quickly shrinks. One such exposition came from the very underrated human interaction module installed in your home, where your hosts watch other humans interact with each other virtually.

You start to notice a pattern: there has to be some cooperation if there is intent to dismiss a conversation with politeness, and this cooperation increases to the point where the speaker assumes the level of knowledge the listener needs.

You believe this to be a very partial judgement. “I want to know more, “ you cry. But in this world, communication is apart from the actual illocution of the speaker. Standard polite terms and uses are seen often enough to lose their meanings entirely, and become warped into a customary setting rather than the words themselves. You notice that there are factors that govern relevance beyond just the relevance to the conversation: it is the relevance to the format, relevance to the formality, and most importantly, relevance of implication.


And finally, as you rest your weary head and your overlords ask what you have learned, you think “Nothing, and everything.” They are perplexed and deem you unfit for your mission. Congratulations, you are now a connoisseur of human communication.