Cooperative principle

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The cooperative principle suggests that everyday speakers naturally adhere to underlying principles that guide conversation.[1] According to the principle, people create meaning together which is the a collaboration of all parties contributing to the conversation on the basis of being informative, relevant, honest, and clear. [2] As phrased by Paul Grice, who introduced it, "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." [3] The principle is intended as a description of how people normally behave in conversation in low context culture, which is where people have many interactions but they are of shorter duration. In low context cultures, behaviors and beliefs are spelled out. [4]

The cooperative principle can be divided into four maxims, the Gricean maxims, enabling effective communication.[5] Grice proposed four conversational maxims that arise from the pragmatics of natural language.[5]The maxims can be relayed in better terms of R.I.C.H which was created later on, to parallel the maxims in simplified terms. The maxim of quality (honest) is important due others counting on the information being shared with them is true. The maxim of quantity (informative), only present information that is appropriate and of value to the conversation. The maxim of relation (relevant) respond to what others have said, and make sure is applicable to the situation. The last maxim of manner (clarity) is to be clear in the conversation rather than being vague. One should be straight forward and use concise language that is easily understood by everyone.[2] [3]

Obeying the cooperative principle[edit]

When making your contribution to the conversation, the principle is used to make sure that the conversation continues in purpose and adds information at the correct stage and when it is required. 

The cooperative principle goes both ways: listeners observe the cooperative principle, and speakers assume that listeners are observing it. This gives way for the possibility of implicatures the action of implying a meaning beyond the literal sense, but that can be inferred. For example, Allen asks Beth if she is going to a party. Beth replies with, " I have to work", she never stated she was not going to the party but she implied it. [6]

Grice's maxims[edit]

Maxim of Relation -relevancy

Present information as response to what other's have said that is applicable to the situation.[2]

For example, if someone asks: “What do you like to do for fun?”—the next speaker should respond by addressing the immediate concerns of the question: “I like to go to yoga.” [1]

Maxim of quantity-informative

The maxim of quantity implies that speakers orient to the importance of being adequately informative in the course of an interaction.

  • submaxims
  1. Make your contribution as informative as is required.
  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.[7]

As an example, in story telling, each person can emphasize certain details and ignore others. [1]

Maxim of Manner-clarity

Present information in a straight-forward, clear, and concise language. [2]

  • submaxims
  1. Express emotions clearly.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief.
  4. Be orderly.[1]

Such as saying " Your project needs to be completely redone", yes this is clear and brief. A better way to approach the same situation without being frank and rude is to say " Sorry for the inconvenience this may cause you but your project needs to be revised" [2]

Maxmim of quality- honest

Honest is the most important maxim because others count on the information shred with them is truthful. [2]

  • submaxmims
  1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
  2. Do not say what you lack evidence for. [7]

For example, a speaker does not need to question every statement made at the turn to another speaker. [1]


These maxims may also be understood as describing the assumptions listeners normally make about the way speakers will talk, rather than prescriptions for how one ought to talk. Philosopher Kent Bach writes:

...[W]e need first to get clear on the character of Grice's maxims. They are not sociological generalizations about speech, nor they are moral prescriptions or proscriptions on what to say or communicate. Although Grice presented them in the form of guidelines for how to communicate successfully, I think they are better construed as presumptions about utterances, presumptions that we as listeners rely on and as speakers exploit (Bach 2005).

Gricean maxims generate implicatures. If the overt, surface meaning of a sentence does not seem to be consistent with the Gricean maxims, and yet the circumstances lead us to think that the speaker is nonetheless obeying the cooperative principle, we tend to look for other meanings that could be implied by the sentence.

Grice did not, however, assume that all people should constantly follow these maxims. Instead, he found it interesting when these were not respected, namely either "flouted" (with the listener being expected to be able to understand the message) or "violated" (with the listener being expected to not note this). Flouting would imply some other, hidden meaning. The importance was in what was not said. For example, answering It's raining to someone who has suggested playing a game of tennis only disrespects the maxim of relation on the surface; the reasoning behind this "fragment" sentence is normally clear to the interlocutor (the maxim is just "flouted").

Flouting the maxims[edit]

It is possible to flout a maxim and thereby convey a different meaning than what is literally spoken.[8] Many times in conversation, this flouting is manipulated by a speaker to produce a negative pragmatic effect, as with sarcasm or irony. One can flout the maxim of quality to tell a clumsy friend who has just taken a bad fall that her gracefulness is impressive and obviously intend to mean the complete opposite. Likewise, flouting the maxim of quantity may result in ironic understatement, the maxim of relevance in blame by irrelevant praise, and the maxim of manner in ironic ambiguity.[9] The Gricean maxims are therefore often purposefully flouted by comedians and writers, who may hide the complete truth and manipulate their words for the effect of the story and the sake of the reader's experience.[10]

Speakers who deliberately flout the maxims usually intend for their listener to understand their underlying implication. In the case of the clumsy friend, she will most likely understand that the speaker is not truly offering a compliment. Therefore, cooperation is still taking place, but no longer on the literal level. Conversationalists can assume that when speakers intentionally flout a maxim, they still do so with the aim of expressing some thought. Thus, the Gricean maxims serve a purpose both when they are followed and when they are flouted.[citation needed]


Grice's theory is often disputed by arguing that cooperative conversation, as with most social behaviour, is culturally determined, and therefore the Gricean maxims and the cooperative principle cannot be universally applied due to intercultural differences. Keenan claims that the Malagasy, for example, follow a completely opposite cooperative principle in order to achieve conversational cooperation. In their culture, speakers are reluctant to share information and flout the maxim of quantity by evading direct questions and replying on incomplete answers because of the risk of losing face by committing oneself to the truth of the information, as well as the fact that having information is a form of prestige.[11] However, Harnish points out[12] that Grice only claims his maxims hold in conversations where his cooperative principle is in effect. The Malagasy speakers choose not to be cooperative, valuing the prestige of information ownership more highly. (It could also be said in this case that this is a less cooperative communication system, since less information is shared)

Another criticism is that the Gricean maxims can easily be misinterpreted to be a guideline for etiquette, instructing speakers on how to be moral, polite conversationalists. However, the Gricean maxims, despite their wording, are only meant to describe the commonly accepted traits of successful cooperative communication. Geoffrey Leech introduced the politeness maxims: tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement, and sympathy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Mirivel, Julien (2015). "Cooperative Principle". The international encyclopedia of language and social interaction (1st). 
  2. ^ a b c d e f McCornack, Steven; Ortiz, Joseph. Choices and Connections (2nd ed.). Bedford/ St. Martin's. pp. 120–122. ISBN 9781319043520. 
  3. ^ a b Livingston, Paisley (2011). "Cooperative Principle". The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences (1st edition). 
  4. ^ Beer, Jennifer. "High and Low Context". Culture at Work. Retrieved 12 March 2018. 
  5. ^ a b Kordić, Snježana (1991). "Konverzacijske implikature" [Conversational implicatures] (PDF). Suvremena lingvistika (in Serbo-Croatian). 17 (31-32): 89. ISSN 0586-0296. OCLC 440780341. ZDB-ID 429609-6. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 September 2012. Retrieved 9 February 2015.
  6. ^ "Implicature". Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 05/06/2005.  Check date values in: |date= (help);
  7. ^ a b Horn, Laurence (2005). "Implicature". Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. 
  8. ^ Grice, Paul (1975). "Logic and conversation". In Cole, P.; Morgan, J. Syntax and semantics. 3: Speech acts. New York: Academic Press. pp. 41–58. 
  9. ^ Kaufer, D. S. (1981). "Understanding ironic communication". Journal of Pragmatics. 5: 495–510. doi:10.1016/0378-2166(81)90015-1. 
  10. ^ McCulloch, Gretchen. ""Look At All These Ducks There Are At Least Ten." Why Is This Funny?". Slate (magazine). The Slate Group. Retrieved 20 June 2014. 
  11. ^ Keenan, Elinor Ochs. (1976). "On the universality of conversational postulates". Language in Society. 5 (1): 67–80. doi:10.1017/s0047404500006850. 
  12. ^ Harnish, R. (1976). "Logical form and implicature". In Bever T G; Katz J J; Langendoen, D T. An Integrated Theory of Linguistic Ability. New York: Crowel. 


  • Cameron, D. (2001). Working with Spoken Discourse. London: Sage Publications.
  • Mey, Jacob. 2001. Pragmatics: An Introduction, page 76–77. Blackwell.
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald. 2006. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Blackwell.

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