08 January 2009

Linguistic Factoid No. 4: Grice's Maxims

So, for the fourth installment of the linguistic factoids, I give you Grice's maxims. There was once a philosopher named Paul Grice, who analyzed how discourse and conversation should function. In the end, he posited four different maxims which are deemed to be important in carrying out a well-formed discourse. These are the following:

1. Maxim of Quantity: Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as necessary. Do not make your contribution to the conversation more informative than necessary.

2. Maxim of Quality: Do not say what you believe to be false. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

3. Maxim of Relevance: Be relevant.

4. Maxim of Manner: Avoid obscurity of expression. Avoid ambiguity. Be brief. Be orderly.

If one follows all of these maxims, then a smooth discourse would be carried out.

However, it is not the case that people do not violate these. In fact, people do intentionally violate these maxims for a desired effect. And no, I am not just talking about the obvious, say, violating the Maxim of Quality when one is lying.

Sarcasm, for example, is an example of a violation of the Maxim of Quality. Say you are shoveling your driveway in the middle of a snowstorm, and your friend watches you. Then you say, I totally love shoveling my driveway in the middle of a snowstorm. You say this with a square face, but obviously, you are not enjoying the task. You are therefore violating the Maxim of Quality, in order to convey sarcasm.

Another example where Gricean maxims are in play is the following. Say a woman asks hier friend, Is Paul single? Then her friend answers by saying Well, he flies to Chicago every other weekend. On the surface, that may not make sense, but due to the Maxim of Relevance, this is a good example of discourse, and the reply is assumed to be relevant to the question. Thus, flying to Chicago every other weekend may be evidence that the person in question is indeed seeing someone in Chicago and therefore the answer to the original question is that he is not single.

There are plenty of other instances of interesting uses of obeying and violating these maxims. These are just a few examples. I suppose since I do not work with these directly in my research, I won't say more, or else I might say something wrong. So there, there's your linguistic factoid for today.

(Big Trees, from my Mount Vernon Series)


  1. It's an excellent summary of Grice's maxims. Not clear to me why you refer to them as 'factoids', though.


  2. J. L. Speranza,

    Hi. While it is indeed true that the original definition of "factoid" is that it refers to something that becomes accepted as a fact, although it is not (or may not be) true, this is not the only available definition out there. The above definition was provided by OED, but the dynamic nature of language gives way to semantic change, that nowadays, this word can also be used to refer to a small piece of "true" but valueless or insignificant information. You might want to dig up tokens by the CNN Headline News back in 1980s and 1990s for examples of these.

  3. Thanks, Linguist-in-Waiting.

    We should recall, for the record, the excellent work of Deborah Cameron and Taylor, in their Pergamon book on Conversation.

    They list Grice, rightly, as a ratinalist (I am one, too, on Wednesday). As opposed to an empiricist like, say, Gardiner (Cameron and Taylor can be OLD fashioned -- Love them!)

    So, there's this other side to 'factoid' too.

    For Grice, the maxims, as you say, are not reports of FACTS. They are not factoids, even. They are should-oids, rather. I.e things he thinks as a Kantian that people KANT but as a matter of fact follow! All very complicated but the bread and butter of where he and I are coming: philosophy!

    J. L. Speranza
    for the GriceClub.blogspot

  4. J. L. Speranza,

    Ah, no wonder you nitpick, because you're from Philosophy! :)

    For me, I totally believe in language change, and you might be right in insisting on the proper definitions on whether Grice's Maxims should be termed a factoid or not, but language is not set in a pedestal that its meanings are set to stone. I used the term factoid here to do a short exposition on a series of linguistic information, but never did I intend my "Linguistic Factoid Series" to be a scholarly source; there are textbooks intended for that purpose. Thus, for the purpose of the casual blog reader, what I write here in my Linguistic Factoid Series are just true but valueless and insignificant information, which licenses me to call them "factoids".

    Besides, whatever happened to Wittgenstein?

  5. Oh I LOVE your factoids. And you have every right! (as you don't need to be reminded)

    Only recall the schyzoids! Just teasing.

    Witters, Witters, rings a bell -- just teasing.

    But back to factois. Your 'tirade' (well meant) being along Trudgill, "Language myths". A factoid, a useless piece of information. I take that. And I understand your point that factoid IS a factive (I'm a nitpicker philospher but since Grice refers to the Kiparskys I will).

    I was referring to things like Leech. In his underrated Principles of Pragmatics (just ignored in philo circles), he says: the maxims are not FACTS, they are "VALUES". As in Hilary Putnam, "Fact vs. value". It's not something IN THE WORLD. It's a VALUE in the world. They are formulated as imperatives, making their "direction of fit" Moses-oriented (as when he brought the tables from Sinai, "Thou shalt not covet your neighbour's wife"). They _are_ factoids in that people (some!) abide by them. But they are, to use Grice's term, 'eschatological'. They are beyond the categoiries of physics and they turn 'trans-naturalia'. Yes, verbosity, but hey, you provoked me!


  6. J. L. Speranza,

    Oh, provoking is a good thing I suppose. It encourages intellectual discussion like these! It makes me aware of what other people (in this case, philosophers) care about!