Lecture / Seminar 2: Pragmatics of language II: Grice's
Principle of Co-operation
You will find all you need under the entry for "Grice'
co-operative principle' in any pragmatics textbook (see Readings, above).
And as before, if you'd like to read a specialist account, the best is
in Levinson, S. (1983) Pragmatics. CUP.
Last week we wondered about how words do things, which led us to
understand that the
idea was helpful, though it seemed idealised and a long way from actual
Today we'll look at a fascinating insight from a philosopher, Paul
Grice, meant to explain
some absolutely fundamental things about what happens when people speak to
each other in real
We shall see how people use certain regularities about spoken language in interaction to help
them make sense of what's being said (and what it
means, and how one should reply).
|Exploiting a basic principle
Perhaps the most
basic principle of actual exchanges of talk is that what is said at any moment
is inevitably coloured by what has gone just before (even if what is before is a
silence, a scream, or anything at all). Take this example:
Speaker B: The dog looks happy.
Now on its own, that's a statement about the dog. But what did Speaker A, say,
immediately beforehand? What if we discovered that she
Speaker A: Where's the roast beef?
Then we have a different sense of the force of the observation about the dog.
That's the kind of thing I want to describe in this lecture: the relationship
between the things that two people say. The basic human contract we have with
each other as competent members of society is that what I say is somehow
related to what you've just said, and we'll see what that relation is like.
The first person to have a go at putting the relationship on a systematic
footing wasn't a psychologist, interestingly enough (in fact nobody I'm going to
mention in this lecture is a psychologist, strictly speaking), but a
philosopher, Paul Grice.
The aspect of his theory that most interests us is hs notion that people were
bound to what he called a general Co-operative Principle.
The co-operative principle is to speak in
such a way as it helps move things along. It comes out in four main ways. People
try to to be relevant; to say (only) as much as is necessary; to
say what is true; and to be clear.
|The Co-operative Principle:
|Be relevant, clear, truthful and say as much as is
Who would argue with any of that? No-one. But they are not meant to be
prescriptions like the ones you see in etiquette books ('speak clearly and be
courteous at all times.."). They are mean to reveal what the listener can
assume about the speaker's intentions. Only by making those assumptions can
talk be understood that would otherwise be unintelligible. Let me show you what
Let's work on that snatch of (invented) talk I mentioned
|Maxim of Relevance:
|Make what you say bear on the issue at
Jim: Where's the roast beef? Any competent speaker knows that Mary means something like "In
answer to your question, the dinner has been eaten by the dog". Of course, she
doesn't say that - we work it out on the basis, first, that what she says is
relevant to what she's been asked. If she's mentioning the dog, then the
dog must be some kind of answer. This is perhaps the most utterly indispensable
and foundational assumption we make about the talk we hear - that it's relevant
to what has immediately gone before.
Mary: The dog looks happy.
It's hard to overstate the case, or to say how much for granted we take it.
As listeners, we will work very, very hard (but unconsciously) to find a
relevance in even the most apparently unconnected utterances, so long as one
follows the other.
Use the table below to generate a few random pairs of utterances. I think
that even when the result is odd or daft you'll be able to find a meaningful
relation between the two utterances (though sometimes you'll have to work at
|Choose any one from here
|Then any one from here
|What a beautiful coat
How about a cup of tea?
Great news about Pat
Did I ever tell you about my crazy uncle?
I'm in the mood for love.
My head hurts
I'll be back around ten thirty
rather be in Torremolinos
What do you know about it?
you ever think about anything else?
Not round here.
Anyone who overheard an exchange like A: "Great news about Pat" / B: "Don't you
ever think about anything else?" would automatically make sense of it on the assumption that B
was being co-operative - that they said what they said relevantly. In this case,
it might be that B is accusing A of always going on about Pat, is obsessed
by Pat and so on. Or if the random pair was A: "How about a cup of tea" and B:
"Not round here", we'd assume that we were overhearing a couple discussing a
break from shopping and rejecting the local cafes, and so on. We can always make some
sort of sense out of two utterances on the basis that they are relevant to each other.
Imagine life without that basic assumption. Talk would be extremely tedious,
because Speaker B would always have to say "In response to what you just
People work hard to ignore the apparent un-cooperativeness of the next
utterance and to find something relevant, clear, truthful etcetera about it. That
means that we can work miracles of implication, and get meanings across very
laconically and economically, like the 'roast beef' example above. Let's see the
same thing in a couple of other maxims, keeping an eye out to see how people can
exploit the maxims to lead others to draw conclusions.
|Maxim of Quantity:
|Say as much as is helpful
maxim is "say as much as is helpful but no more and no less". Let's use it to
see how you can misdirect someone by playing on the fact that they will
assume you are saying as much as is needed. If someone asked you
Where did you go yesterday? and you said
Odense train station Then they would
automatically assume that you went to no less and no more a place than the train
station (to buy a railcard, or to meet someone or whatever). If they later
discovered that in fact you'd then gotten on the train and gone to Copenhagen
and spent the day shopping,
they'd be entitled to feel surprised and even perhaps a bit cheated. You had been 'economical with the
truth', in the sense that you had disobeyed the maxim of quantity. Every
listener assumes that the next speaker will say enough - not too much,
but certainly not too little (even though what little they said, like
"Odense train station", would be 'true').
|Maxim of Manner:
|Be concise, to the point,
Let's use this maxim to see how a speaker can
make listeners draw quite extensive implications by the way they flagrantly go
against, or flout, as Grice called it, the maxims. Suppose you overheard
two parents say to each other (the example is from Levinson, p 104; see ref
A: Let's get the kids something
B is going
out of their way to be a bit obscure, spelling out the words rather than simply
saying them (or B might have said 'pas des glaces pour les enfants' or
some such). B is utterly failing to co-operatively follow the maxim of clarity
and conciseness. B is being so flagrant that A can infer that there must be a
special reason for being so uncooperative: the likely inference, of course, is
that B doesn't want the kids to complain that they're being denied a treat.
B: OK but not I-C-E C-R-E-A-M [spelling it out]
|Maxim of Quality:
|Be as truthful as is appropriate
The hearer assumes that the speaker is not knowingly telling a lie or
fantasising. Fair enough, and maybe routinely that is indeed the case. What is
more interesting is what happens when someone flouts that maxim (as we saw in
the case above). Suppose the conversation went like this:
A: I might win the lottery
The obviousness of the 'untruth'
of B's reply gives our cognitive system a huge nudge. B is flouting the maxim of
quality, so there must be something else going on, and so we start a hunt for
likely inferences we can make. Here. of course, we quickly settle on the
implication that A's chances of winning the lottery are about the same as
pigs flying. Flouting the maxim of quality is the driving force in irony -
try thinking of ironic comments you've heard recently, or generate some witty
repartee of your own (hard to do just like that, I know) and see how they
achieve their ends by what they do to expectations of 'truth'.
B: Yes, and pigs might fly.
This week's seminar: Working with the co-operative principle.
We will discuss the idea of 'flouting' the principles, based on your
readings of relevant material in the introductory texts.
For next week's seminar:
Start to look into Conversation Analysis. It would be helpful if you read the first
chapter of Hutchby and Wooffitt's book 'Conversation Analysis' (see Readings).