Grice's Conversational Maxims

Grice's conversational maxims were created by the British philosopher H. Paul Grice in the 1970s. Grice's conversational Maxims, also known as The Gricean Maxims, are based on Grice's Cooperative Principle, which aims to explain how people achieve effective communication in everyday situations.

Grice's Conversational Maxims Grice's Conversational Maxims

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Table of contents

    Grice's Conversational Maxims: definition

    Grice believed that meaningful dialogue was characterized by cooperation and based his Cooperative Principle theory on the assumption that participants in a conversation usually attempt to be truthful, informative, relevant, and clear in order to facilitate successful communication. Based on these assumptions, Grice divided his cooperative principle into four conversational Maxims.

    Grice's Maxims for conversation

    The 4 Conversational Maxims are the Maxim of quality, the Maxim of quantity, the Maxim of relevance, and the Maxim of manner.

    Grice believed that anyone wishing to engage in meaningful communication would follow these maxims and would assume that others would also be following them.

    Grice's Maxim of quality

    Abiding by the Maxim of quality means not telling a lie on purpose. When following this maxim during communication, you should:

    • Only say things you believe to be true.
    • Not say things that you cannot back up with evidence.

    'The capital of India is New Delhi.'

    Here the speaker believes that they are telling the truth to the best of their knowledge.

    Grice's Maxim of quantity

    When following the Maxim of quantity, it is important to not withhold information during communication that would be necessary to keep the conversation going. However, it is also important not to bombard our listeners with too much irrelevant information. When abiding by this maxim during communication, you should:

    • Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as required.
    • Not contribute more informative than required.

    Speaker A: 'Do you know if Katie got on okay with her exams?'

    Speaker B: 'Yes, I do. She did really well and got an A! '

    Here speaker B could have ended their reply after 'yes, I do.' However, they shared all of the information they knew so as not to flout the Maxim of quantity.

    (Don't worry, we're going to cover flouting Maxims soon!)

    Grice's Conversational Maxims Man flouting maxim of quantity StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - Withholding desired information is a way of flouting the maxim of quantity.

    Grice's Maxim of relevance

    Following the Maxim of relevance keeps conversations on track and helps prevent random conversations that lack continuity. This Maxim also helps us to understand utterances in conversations that may not be initially obvious. When abiding by this Maxim, you should:

    • Only say things that are relevant to the conversation.

    Speaker A: 'Do you think Leo is dating someone new?'

    Speaker B: 'Well, he goes to Brighton most weekends.'

    Due to the Maxim of relevance, we can infer that there is a link between Leo dating someone and him going to Brighton, and speaker B isn't just randomly telling us about Leo's trips to Brighton.

    Grice's Maxim of manner

    The maxim of manner is a principle of effective communication that encourages speakers to be clear, concise, and orderly in their expression.

    For example, when following this Maxim, we should avoid using big or overly complex words that we know our listeners won't understand and should try our best to be concise and coherent. Take a look below for another example of a Maxim of manner:

    'I'm writing an essay on metonymy. It's a type of figure of speech!'

    Here the speaker knew that it was possible that the listener wouldn't know the term metonymy and decided to give a quick explanation.

    Breaking Grice's 4 Conversational Maxims - examples

    Grice's Maxims are statements that express a rule of conduct; However, these conducts are often broken during communication. Grice did not assume that everyone would constantly follow these maxims. Instead, he found it interesting when the Maxims were not respected, namely by being either violated or flouted.

    Violating Grice's Maxims

    When Grice's Maxims are violated, they have been broken surreptitiously (secretly) or covertly (undercover). This means that others involved in the conversation are unaware that a Maxim has been broken.

    The most common maxims that get violated are the maxim of quality and the maxim of quantity.

    • Maxim of Quality is violated when an individual purposely tells a lie.
    • Maxim of quantity is violated when an individual secretly with holds information that someone else wants to know.

    Violating Grice's Maxims is more serious than flouting them, yet the severity of the violation can vary. For example, telling a lie in court is arguably worse than telling a little 'white lie'.

    Flouting Grice's maxims

    Flouting Grice's Maxims is a lot more common than violating maxims and is usually considered more acceptable. When Grice's Maxims are being flouted, it should be apparent to all those concerned.

    Being ironic, using metaphors, pretending to mishear someone, and using a tone of voice that does not match the content of what you are saying are all examples of flouting Grice's Maxims.

    Let's take a look at some of the different ways in which the maxims are often flouted.

    • Maxim of Manner is flouted when speakers use many big words and technical jargon that they know their listeners won't understand.
    • Maxim of Relevance is flouted when someone pretends to mishear what has been said to change the conversation.
    • Maxim of Quantity is flouted when someone does not answer a question in full, usually to be obtuse or even annoying.
    • Maxim of Quality is flouted when someone is being ironic.

    (This is not an extensive list of all the ways maxims can be flouted, just a few handy examples. Can you think of any other ways people flout Grice's Maxims?)

    When individuals flout maxims, they usually expect the listener to understand the intended meaning. Maxims are even purposefully flouted at times by comedians and writers for comedic effect!

    Here are a few discourse examples of Grice's Maxims being flouted.

    Speaker A: 'Do you know if there is any food in the fridge?'

    Speaker B: 'Yes, I do know.'

    Here the Maxim of quantity has been flouted as speaker B is with holding information from speaker A. This example is a flout and not a violation because everyone in the conversation is aware that information is not being shared.

    Zack: 'Wow, this place is awesome. Where do they keep the Archies?'

    Sheldon: 'In the bedroom of ten-year-old girls, where they belong.'

    In this extract from The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon flouts the Maxim of quality by giving an answer that both people know is not true. Here, the maxim has been flouted for comedic effect.

    Speaker A: 'I'm not sure about this new guy I'm seeing. He never messages me back, and I think he's talking to someone else.'

    Speaker B: 'Sounds like a real keeper!'

    Here the Maxim of quality has been flouted. Speaker B is lying - they don't really think that the new guy is a real keeper - they are being ironic. Again, this is not a violation because everyone concerned knows that the truth isn't being told.

    Speaker A: 'Are you okay? You look upset.'

    Speaker B: 'Uh ... I'm fine.' (in a sad tone)

    Here the Maxim of quality has again been flouted as speaker B obviously isn't fine. Speaker B is expecting speaker A to infer something different from what is actually being said. Grice refers to this flout as an implicature. Conversational implicature refers to the extra meaning implied within discourse without necessarily being said aloud.

    Grice's conversational maxims Sad girl flouting a maxim StudySmarterFig. 2 - This girl is flouting the maxim of quality as she is lying.

    What are some criticisms of Grice's conversational maxims?

    Grice's conversational maxims have been criticized as they fail to recognize that cooperation within conversations is culturally determined, as with most social interactions.

    Grice's maxims are based upon expected behaviours within the Western world, and therefore, cannot be applied globally due to potential cultural differences (Clyne, 1994).¹ Additionally, several theorists have criticized the maxims for being too vague and overly ambiguous.

    As a result of this ambiguity, Grice's maxims have frequently been misinterpreted and misrepresented as guidelines for etiquette and instructions on being polite. However, this is not their intention. The maxims are only ever meant to describe the commonly accepted traits of successful communication.

    Grice's Conversational Maxims - key takeaways

    • Grice's Conversational Maxims were created by the British philosopher H. Paul Grice in the 1970s.
    • Grice's 4 Conversational Maxims are the Maxim of Quality, Maxim of Quantity, Maxim of Relevance, and Maxim of Manner.
    • Grice believed that anyone wishing to engage in meaningful communication would follow these 4 Maxims and would assume that others would also be following them.
    • Grice's Maxims are often broken and can either be violated or flouted.
    • Grice's Maxims have been criticized for not considering cultural differences and for being overly ambiguous.

    ¹ Clyne, M, Intercultural Communication at Work: Cultural values in discourse (1994).

    Frequently Asked Questions about Grice's Conversational Maxims

    What is conversational maxim?

     Grice's conversational maxims were created by the British philosopher H. Paul Grice in the 1970s. Grice believed that anyone wishing to engage in meaningful communication would follow these 4 Maxims and assume that others would also be following them. The four maxims of conversation derive from Grice's Cooperative Principle.

    How do you violate Grice's maxims?

    When a maxim has been violated, an individual has chosen to purposely break the guidelines of one of Grice's maxims overtly. For example, the Maxim of Quality states that we should only say things we believe to be true. If the speaker tells a lie and tries to conceal the lie from the listener (s), then the Maxim of Quality has been violated.

    What is Grice's theory?

    In the 1970s, Grice introduced the theory of the cooperative principle and the conversational maxims. This implied that there are four maxims that speakers must keep to so that they can have effective, cooperative communication.

    How do you use Grice's maxims?

    Grice's four conversational maxims are: maxim of manner, maxim of quantity, maxim of quality and maxim of relevance. Speakers must abide by these maxims in order to create cooperative communication.

    What is an example of maxim of quantity?

    When you abide by the maxim of quantity, you are giving enough information that is required and not giving too much unnecessary information. For example, if someone asks, "Do you know where the toilet is?", the correct response would be to say "Yes, it's through the door on the left." If the explanation is left out, the required quantity of information has not been given, so the maxim of quantity has been flouted.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When did Grice introduce the conversational maxims?

    Which theory are the four conversational maxims part of?

    What does the maxim of quality refer to?

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