cooperative principle

In social science generally and linguistics specifically, the cooperative principle describes how effective communication in conversation is achieved in common social situations, that is, how listeners and speakers must act cooperatively and mutually accept one another to be understood in a particular way. 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.”[1] Though phrased as a prescriptive command, the principle is intended as a description of how people normally behave in conversation. Jeffries and McIntyre describe Grice’s Maxims as “encapsulating the assumptions that we prototypically hold when we engage in conversation”.[2]

The cooperative principle can be divided into four maxims, called the Gricean Maxims, describing specific rational principles observed by people who obey the cooperative principle; these principles enable effective communication.[3] Grice proposed four conversational maxims that arise from the pragmatics of natural language.[3] Applying the Gricean Maxims is a way to explain the link between utterances and what is understood from them.

Grice’s Maxims

Maxim of Quality

Supermaxim:

  • Try to make your contribution one that is true

Submaxims:

  1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
  2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Quantity

  1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of Relevance

  • Be Relevant

With respect to this maxim, Grice writes, “Though the maxim itself is terse, its formulation conceals a number of problems that exercise me a good deal: questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be, how these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects of conversations are legitimately changed, and so on. I find the treatment of such questions exceedingly difficult, and I hope to revert to them in later work.”[1]

Maxim of Manner

Supermaxim:

  • Be perspicacious

Submaxims:

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.

Explanation

These maxims may be better understood as describing the assumptions listeners normally make about the way speakers will talk, rather than prescriptions for how one ought to talk.

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