Or: Rules were made to be broken

The late linguist and former philosopher H. P. Grice put forth the theory of the Cooperative Principle in order to explain why we're not all slapping each other into coherence every time we try to engage in conversation.

The theory posits that participants enter into an unspoken agreement not to confuse the living hell out of each other: speakers are bound not to speak in such a way as to impede interpretation, and listeners are compelled to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt by assuming some kind of sense is being made. The two or more people involved cooperate to create, transmit, and analyse meaning.

So if you don't get what follows, YOU'RE NOT COOPERATING.

Speak freely. Wait. Don't.

Grice's suggestions about the principle's components are generally recognized by linguists as the following four maxims:

  1. the maxim of quantity: A favorite of lawyers, or at least, TV shows about lawyers. This is the "just answer the question" maxim--give no more or less information than is required.
  2. the maxim of quality: Don't intentionally lie, or say things you can't back up. So much for a career in politics.
  3. The maxim of relation: Stick to the subject at hand. When asked if you want fries with that, don't start jabbering on about the kids and their damned devil music.
  4. The maxim of manner: Eschew obfuscation. Likewise ambiguity, disarray, and my personal favorite, prolixity. Brevity is the sort of spiritual essence thing of incisive commentary delivered with impeccable timing.

However, it is not in the fastness of these maxims that the most interesting bits of Grice's theory lie. Violation of the four in any combination is common in every conversational medium; spoken, written, and presuming you can crack wise in sign language, there as well. All of literature and most of what I'm saying to you now would certainly otherwise read like stereo instructions, and no matter how clearly I put it you wouldn't want to listen.

Here are just a few of the things you can't do if you're following the maxims to the letter:

  • Flirt: Trying to get that hottie at the bar into the sack? You're not going to say "I'm trying to get you to go to bed with me," are you? No. So you are going to have to violate the maxims of manner and quality at the very least. No double-entendre allowed in the Cooperative Principle.
  • Exercise Social Grace: "Wow, your home is really cramped and smelly!" This is a no-no. Maxim of quality must be violated, or we simply cannot take you anywhere.
  • Metaphor: Maximum ease of interpretation necessitates stripping off additional layers of meaning. You're challenging the relevance maxim.
  • Irony: Since irony is saying the opposite of what you mean, your arsenal of "Smooth move!" and "Nice one!" zingers has to go in the bin. Manner and/or quality violation.

As I said, these are just a very few things the principle discounts; yet, they probably account for the bulk of expression in real life. So what precisely is the point of the Cooperative Principle, if it's constantly being disregarded?

Read Between the Lines

Grice's assertion--along with the other folks who aren't still hopelessly mired in trying to form a single unified theory of linguistics (good luck!)--is that we are AWARE of the rules even when they are broken, and our brains can adapt to the violation as a result of our expectations.

The name given to the unspoken meaning is implicature, which Roger Fowler describes in the following way:

...a proposition emerging from something that is said, but not actually stated by the words uttered, nor logically derivable from them. It must therefore be a product of the relationship between utterance and context; and a vital part of context would be the knowledge of motives of speaker and addressee.

This phenomenon occurs all the time, and is easily recognizable if hardly ever noticed. Take for example the following exchange:

Person A: "Is it cold in here?"

Person B: shuts the window.

The implicature is the unspoken command to shut the window. I won't go into the motivations behind why A should phrase the command that way, but the message sent is clear enough despite the violations. The above is a very basic instance, but it can get very complex indeed, with meaning increasingly deeply encoded--as with this next example.

A man who was a soldier tells his wife about the time he shot and killed an enemy in close quarters.

"How did you feel?" she asks.

"It was war," he replies.

One does get a sense of his answer to her question, despite its gross violations of the maxims of quantity and manner. The implicature is very involved--issues of ethics, morality, humanity, war-time behavior, etc., are all called into play. It works because of pre-existing informaton in the reader's head that can be drawn upon to fill the space.

Error Messages

Implicature is, oddly enough, an exception occurring more often than the rule--but it can and does break down. Irony and metaphor don't always work, and sometimes people just don't get the joke you're making. When the violation of a maxim is too extreme, the resulting comprehensive gap is too large to be filled by contextual clues. Insufficient understanding or experience of a speaker's motivation or a hearer's knowledge renders the encoded information indecipherable.

Earlier I made a joke about stereo instructions. If you had no experience with such things, the comparison would be irrelevant, a maxim broken, and the communication a failure. Never mind whether or not you recognized it as a line from Beetlejuice, which only complicates the implicature further.

When the message doesn't get across, the hearer will usually ask for clarification--causing the speaker to resort increasingly to the four maxims of the Cooperative Principle. It's (theoretically) the brain's default setting for receiving and transmitting information; no frills, but it gets the job done.

You said something earlier about brevity?

Right. Wrapping up. The glorious enterprises of speech and writing (beyond the level of instruction manual) work because of the also unspoken agreement that deviation from the perfectly simple and clear is desirable. We agree as listeners and readers to do the extra work involved in interpreting, hopefully getting some mental reward for our efforts. We are made to think.

The Cooperative Principle is there as a tool, not a mandate, to understand the background functionality of conversation, and help us out when the deviation gets too deviant.

And that, simply said, is that.


Fowler, Roger. Linguistic Criticism. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 1996.

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