Pragmatics III

The Cooperative Principle

Pragmatics deals with the ways in which context (the situation) contributes to meaning.

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Writers of English Conversation textbooks have noticed something important: conversations take place in situations.

An important idea in Pragmatics, suggested by Grice, is that speakers cooperate with each other to make sense of what is being said. So, whatever you say, the listener will always assume that you are trying to cooperate in some way.

Cooperation

Grice suggested that the spirit of cooperation is central to conversation. Do you agree?

Grice suggested that there are also four conversational maxims that are used in addition to the Cooperative Principle.

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Grice’s Maxim of Quantity says that you should not give more or less information than is necessary. In this example, the speaker is giving more information than is necessary. Notice that giving more information than is necessary is the same as giving irrelevant information (see the Maxim of Relation below).

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In this example, the speaker (Wally, drinking coffee) tries to give less information than is appropriate, while technically telling the truth. In other words, he does not want to give relevant information.

The first maxim is the Maxim of Quantity. This just says that you should not say more than is necessary, and you should not say less than is necessary.

The second maxim is the Maxim of Quality. This just means that you should speak the truth. Do not say anything that is false.

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The Maxim of Quality. Do not lie. Wait! Surely the speaker did not really want to die!? That’s a lie, isn’t it?

The third maxim is the Maxim of Relation. This just means that you should say things that are relevant to the conversation. You will notice that the Maxim of Relation and the Maxim of Quantity overlap quite a bit.

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The Maxim of Relation. Only say things that are relevant to the conversation. Is that really different to the Maxim of Quantity?

The fourth maxim is the Maxim of Manner. This just says that you should not say things that are difficult to understand (because they are ambiguous or obscure, for example).

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The Maxim of Manner says that you should try to keep things easy to understand.

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Sometimes things sound clever but it is not always clear what they mean. This violates the Maxim of Manner.

Of course, the problem with these maxims is that they are violated all the time. Actually, it is a bit difficult to find any examples of real conversation that actually obey the maxims!

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Here’s the problem with Grice’s maxims: conversations don’t obey them at all! However, we violate the maxims for a reason.

Grice had an answer to this problem; he said that violations of the maxims lead us to think about what the speaker is implying.

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Speakers are always implying meanings even though the words themselves do not seem to carry those meanings.

In other words, speakers violate these maxims in order to have an intended effect; this is called implicature. Imagine I say “I’m hungry” and you reply “Let me get my cellphone out.” Just looking at the meaning of the utterances, the reply does not seem strictly relevant. You (usually) cannot eat a cellphone! So the reply violates the Maxim of Relation. However, we can use our knowledge about the world and the general assumption that speakers are trying to be cooperative, in order to make sense of it. How would you make sense of this example?

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Here’s another eating example. It is not literally true that I eat books. What am I implying? Why do I use a word like devour here?

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Remember, words by themselves do not actually refer to anything. They need to be used by us in contexts.

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What is the implication here?

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