In a series of lectures at Harvard University in 1967, the English language
philosopher H.P. (Paul) Grice outlined an approach to what he termed
conversational implicature– how hearers manage to work out the complete
message when speakers mean more than they say. An example of what Grice
meant by conversational implicature is the utterance:
“Have you got any cash on you?”
where the speaker really wants the hearer to understand the meaning:
“Can you lend me some money? I don’t have much on me.”
Consider the following:
parent Did you do your homework?
child I finished my essay.
parent Well, you better do your algebra too.
The parent inferred that the child had not done all her homework, even
though she did not assert she didn’t. The parent inferred that if the child explicitly
mentioned only one of her assignments, she had not done the other; that is,
mentioning only the essay and failing to mention algebra implicates that she had not done her algebra.
The conversational implicatureis a message that is not found in the plain
sense of the sentence. The speaker implicates it. The hearer is able to infer (work
out, read between the lines) this message in the utterance by appealing to the rules
governing successful conversational interaction. Grice proposed that implicatures
like the second sentence can be calculated from the first, by understanding three
− The usual linguistic meaning of what is said.
− Contextual information (shared or general knowledge).
− The assumption that the speaker is obeying what Grice calls the cooperative
2. The Cooperative principle and Grice’s maxims
In 1975, H. P.Grice published a seminal article entitled "The Co-operative
Principle" that created quite a stir on the linguistic scene and generated a large
number of linguistic publications that built on Grice’s postulates. Paul Grice
proposes that in ordinary conversation, speakers and hearers share a cooperative
principle. The basic assumption is that any discourse, whether written or spoken, is
a joint effort. Both the speaker and the addressee have to follow certain pragmatic,
syntactic, and semantic rules in order to communicate effectively. They have to cooperate.
The Cooperative Principle is an attempt to show how speaker’s meaning
arises from sentence meaning.
As phrased by Paul Grice, who introduced it, it states, "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." Though
phrased as a prescriptive command, the principle is intended as a description of
how people normally behave in conversation. Put more simply, people who obey
the cooperative principle in their language use will make sure that what they say in
a conversation furthers the purpose of that conversation. Obviously, the
requirements of different types of conversations will be different.
The cooperative principle can be divided into four maxims, called the
The principle can be explained by four underlying rules or maxims
describing specific rational principles observed by people who obey the
cooperative principle; these principles enable effective communication. (David
Crystal calls them conversational maxims. They are also sometimes named
Grice’s or Gricean maxims.) They are the maxims of quality, quantity, relevance
− Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true. – Speakers should be
truthful. They should not say what they think is false, or make statements for
which they have no evidence.
− Quantity: Give the right amount of information. – A contribution should be
as informative as is required for the conversation to proceed. It should be
neither too little, nor too much. (It is not clear how one can decide what
quantity of information satisfies the maxim in a given case.)
− Relevance: Be relevant. – Speakers’ contributions should relate clearly to
the purpose of the exchange.
− Manner: Be perspicuous [i.e. clear, easy to follow]. – Speakers’
contributions should be perspicuous: clear, orderly and brief, avoiding
obscurity and ambiguity.
Of these maxims, the most important is the Maxim of Relation: in listening
to someone, we assume that whatever that person is saying to us is somehow
relevant to the conversational situation. So, for example, in the following
A: Mary lost a book today.
B: Well, I saw Jane carrying around a new book this afternoon.
Person A will infer from B’s utterance that Jane is somehow responsible for
the disappearance of Mary’s book, even though B did actually not say that Jane
was responsible: the Maxim of Relation gives us license to infer that B would not
have said what s/he did unless the information B provided was somehow relevant
to the statement A made. In this way, B’s statement licensed a conversational
implicature. Consider also the following:
A: Do you like wine?
If at a party, A stands before B and asks if B if s/he likes wine, B is allowed
to infer that A is offering B wine even though A did not literally make an offer of
wine. The Maxim of Relation licenses B to infer that A is offering wine since that
understanding would make A’s question most relevant to the context in which it
was said. In other words, understanding what someone is saying to us involves not
just understanding the literal meaning of their utterances, but also making
inferences about how that literal meaning is relevant to the current situation. This
means that we could infer two different messages from the same utterance
depending on how we interpret the situation. So, if someone says, A: You can close the door. we could interpret the statement as a not-too-polite request to close the door or as a statement about the condition of the door [= ‘the door can be closed’] depending on the context in which it is uttered: conversational implicature is sensitive to the context of the utterance.
The other maxims are also important. For example, consider the following
letter of recommendation:
Dear Sir or Madam:
Mr. Hardbottom faithfully turns his work in on time and actively
participates in discussions in seminars.
This letter does not contribute the correct amount of information [thus
violating the Maxim of Quantity], which allows the inference that there is a reason
why the correct amount of information is not being provided, namely that to do so
would involve saying negative things about the recommendee.
According to Grice, the maxims are learned guidelines for social interaction.
“It is just a well-recognized empirical fact that people do behave in these ways [i.e.
in ways that the maxims prescribe]; they learned to do so in childhood, and have
not lost the habit of doing so” (Grice 1989:29).
Grice does not of course prescribe the use of such maxims. Nor does he
suggest that we use them to construct conversations. But they are useful for
analysing and interpreting conversation, and may reveal purposes of which (either
as speaker or listener) we were not previously aware. Although presupposed to be
adhered to by the participants, the maxims are often deliberately broken. Very
often, we communicate particular non-literal meanings by appearing to "violate" or
"flout" these maxims.
If we VIOLATE the maxims, it means that we break them surreptitiously, or
covertly, so that other people do not know. If we violate the maxim of quality, we
lie. If we violate the maxim of quantity by not giving enough information, if
someone finds out we can be accused of 'being economical with the truth', another
deceit. As with laws, some maxim violations can be more heinous than others.
Lying in a court of law is disapproved, but 'white lies', small lies to keep the social
peace, are often thought as acceptable.
If we FLOUT a maxim, we break it in a flagrant (and often foregrounded)
way, so that it is obvious to all concerned that it has been broken. If this happens,
then it is clear that the speaker is intending the hearer to infer some extra meaning
over and above what is said. Maxims can be flouted, e.g., in phatic or small talk
topic shift, seemingly irrelevant remarks whose relevance is implied and may only
be disclosed by inference (relation). Some tropes(figures of speech) are built on
the breach of CP: hyperbole (exaggeration: to wait an eternity), litotes
(understatement, esp. that in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of
its contrary: not bad at all), tautology (repetition: War is war, and there will be losers), paraphrase, euphemism, metaphor and esp. irony (conveys a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning: How nice! said after someone´s I failed another exam).
It should be made very clear here that breaking of any of the maxims of