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Definition And Classification Of Humor

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5284 words Published: 24th Apr 2017

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Humor is a common phenomenon, which plays an important role in many aspects of our daily lives. Over thousand of years humor has been extensively studied in many fields, such as psychology, physiology and philosophy, anthropology, and sociology. Until recent times, it has been studied within the scope of linguistics. The English term “humor” derived from the Latin word for “liquid”, “fluid” or “moisture”. As time went by, the word humor lost its original meaning and came to be used in its present sense. As to the definition of humor, no agreement has been reached yet. According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, it is defined as (1) capacity to cause or feel amusement (2) a person’s state of mind. In Longman Dictionary of English Language & Culture, it is defined as the ability to understand and enjoy what is funny.

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Although the definitions are not completely the same, we still can find something in common: Firstly, there should be human participants in the act. The speaker and the hearer play an important role in the humorous utterance. Secondly, the occurrence of humor should refer to the ability of people who are capable of producing and receiving what is funny and laughable. Thirdly, in any case something must happen in a humorous act, which refers to something people have seen, heard or thought.

As to the classification of humor, Pocheplsov (Pocheplsov, 1981: 25) divided humor into two kinds. One is situational humor, the other is linguistic humor or verbal humor. Situational humor is situation-oriented, such as Monkeys mimic human being’s behavior, and little babies learn to walk. Both of their awkward and vivid postures are situational humor. Verbal humor refers to text-oriented humor, both written and spoken. It is realized by languages. In this paper, verbal humor will be mainly discussed.

2. Humor created by flouting the cooperative principle

In the next part, the theories will be briefly introduced and how the humorous effect is achieved will be discussed in details.

2.1 A brief review of cooperative principle

In the process of communication, participants must abide by some basic principles, especially cooperative principle to ensure that the conversation goes smoothly well. We know that quite often a speaker can mean a lot more than what is said and the hearer can arrive at the speaker’s meaning. A philosophy and logician, H. P. Grice believes that there must be some mechanism governing the production and comprehension of these utterances. He suggests there is a set of assumptions guiding the conduct of conversation. This is what he calls the Cooperative Principle (CP). He then formulates the principle and its maxims as follows:

Make your conversational contribution as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the exchange in which you are engaged.

To put it more specific, there are four maxims under the general principle.

The maxim of quantity

Make your contribution as informative as required (for the current purpose of the exchange )

Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

The maxim of quality

Do not say what you believe to be false.

Do not say that for which you lack the adequate evidence.

The maxim of relation

Be relevant

The maxim of manner

Avoid obscurity of expression

Avoid ambiguity

Be belief

Be orderly (Grice, 1969: 58, cited in Wen & Liu, 2006: 154)

Grice’s CP is, with no doubt, one of the most important pragmatic principles ever existed and also one of the focuses of this thesis. However, not everyone obeys these maxims in the process of communication. Although speakers sometimes may violate these maxims intentionally or unintentionally, they are still cooperative and the communication can be successful. Humor is one of the cases like this .In the pragmatic study of verbal humor, violation or flouting of the four maxims has frequently encountered. In the following parts, I will talk about how humorous effect comes out on flouting of CP maxims in details.

2.2 Humor created by flouting of the maxims

2.2.1 Humor created by flouting of the maxim of quantity

On the one hand, when the information is not as informative as is required, the sense of humor can be felt. For example,

1) That is not my dog

An old lady was strolling through the park when she saw Jamie with a dog.

“Does your dog bite?” she asked.

“NO.” said Jamie.

When the lady tried to pet the dog, it almost bit her finger off. I thought you said “your dog does not bite!” screamed the old lady with blood dripping from her hand.

“That is right,” answered Jamie, “my dog does not bite -but that is not my dog.”

In this story, Jamie violates the CP in that she does not answer the lady’s question without adequate information. But the lady takes it for granted that that is Jamie’s dog. So when she complains, Jamie’s smart answer causes this humorous effect.

On the other hand, when the information is more informative than is required, the humorous effect can also be felt. A good case in point is the conversation between The Soprano and the Contralto.

2) S: Did you notice how my voice filled the hall last night?

C: Yes, dear. In fact I noticed several people leaving to make room for it.

This humor lies in the over-loaded information of the Contralto’s answer. The Soprano is proud of her voice and she wants to get other’s affirmation. So she asks the Contralto. In fact the first part of her answer is enough. From the extra part we can deduce the implication that the Soprano sings so badly that some audience can not bear it and start to leave. The contrast between the Soprano’s expectation and the results she gets produce humorous effect. It is not hard to imagine how embarrassed and lost she was at that moment.

2.2.2 Humor created by flouting of the maxim of quality

We have mentioned that the quality maxim requires the utterance to be true and reliable. The following story will fully explain how the humorous effect will be achieved by flouting the quality maxim.

3) The Barber’s Explanation

Once a boy went into a barber’s shop and he asked for a shave. The barber told him to sit down, soaped his face and then left. The boy waited and waited and at last he lost his patience. “Well”, he shouted, “why are you leaving me here for all the time” The barber replied, “I’m waiting for your beard to grow.”

In this humorous story, the little boy is probably too eager to become an adult. So he asked for a shave, but the humorous barber did not refuse him directly .Instead, he left the boy waiting there and explained when the boy lost out of his patience. Obviously the barber violate the maxim of quality for it is known to us all that it will be many years before the boy grows beard. His real purpose is that he wants to tell the boy that there is no need for him to shave. His humor exists in disagreement between his utterance and actual objective facts. The following story will produce the same effect. It is about a horse or a mistress. The following is the story.

4) A horse or a mistress

A woman came up behind her husband while he was enjoying his coffee and slapped him on the back “I found a piece of paper in your pant pocket with the name Marylou written on it ,” she said ,furiously, “you had better have an explanation.”

“Calm down, honey!” the man replied, “Remember last week I was at the race? That was the name of the horse I bet on”

The next morning his wife sneaked up and again slapped him, “what was that for?” he complained.

“Your horse called last night.”

In this story the husband explained that Marylou was the name of his horse. Obviously he lied and violated the maxim of quality- Say something you believe to be false. The next morning when he asked why his wife beat him. His wife deliberately violated the maxim of quality and said his horse called last night. From this we can feel the wife’s anger and her humor.

Another aspect about deliberately flouting the maxim of quality is saying something lacking of evidence. For instance,

5) She: “how old do you think I am?”

He: “you don’t look your age.”

In this piece of humor, the man’s answer is vivid and humorous in that in western culture age is a taboo for ladies in a conversation. “You don’t look your age” is quite a good answer for however old the lady is, it will not embarrass her.

The violation of quality maxim is actually lying. In order to achieve humorous effect, speakers often apply rhetorical devices, such as personification, irony, hyperbole. Hence the hearer infers that the speaker meant something informative instead, for example, 6) “Tom has wooden ears”, this sentence can be interpreted that Tom do not appreciate classical music so we should not invite him to the concert.

2.2.3 Humor created by flouting of the maxim of manner

In Grice’s cooperative principle, the maxim of manner requires the addresser and addressee to avoid obscurity of expression and ambiguity, be brief and orderly. However in our daily life, it is easy to break one or two, thus producing some unexpected humorous effect.

Firstly, humor is created by intentionally saying some obscurity of expressions.

7): Lady (standing in the middle of a busy street): “officer, can you tell me how to get to the hospital?”

Policeman: “Just stand where you are and you will find how to get to the hospital.”

In example 7), the policeman did not answer the lady’s question directly but indirectly warned her not to stand in the middle of road. This kind of conversation will make the seemingly boring transportation a little interesting.

Secondly, people achieve humorous effect by making use of ambiguity of words. The following dialogue is the oral test to American registered electorate.

8) “Where is Washington?”

“He is dead.”

“I mean the capital of the United States.”

“They loaned it all to Europe.”

“Now do you promise to support the constitutor?”

“Me? How can I? I have got a wife and six children to support.”

In this conversation there are many words easy to be misunderstood for they have multiple meanings. Washington not only refers to one of American cities but also can refer to the first president of United States. Capital also has two meanings, city and money. Support can be used to agree with somebody and it also mean raise somebody. The questioned skillfully make use of polysemy to produce ambiguity. Thus, he can avoid answering the questions directly. It not only vividly reflects his sense of humor but also criticizes American politics.

Thirdly, another way of producing humor by violating the manner of maxim is not to be brief. There is an old story which can best illustrate this point.

Example 9):

There was a man who played the chess for three times continuously. Later when he was asked how it was .He winked his eyes and answered: “I did not win in the first time, the second time I did not lose and the third time I wanted to draw, but he disagreed.”

In actual fact, the man lost three times but he did not want to admit it. So he answered in the way that violates the third rule. However, this clever answer not only save his face but also left a deep impression on people who wanted to know the answer.

Last but not the least is that the speaker deliberately says something random, illogical but the hearer can sense the humor by inferring from what he says. There is an example,

10) Her files of pins extend their shining rows; puffs; powders; patches; bibles; trifles; billet-doux.

From this sentence the author put pins, make-ups of women and love letters sacred bible together. It is hard not to laugh when you get the pragmatic meaning that the woman was not loyal to God and Christian briefs.

2.2.4 Humor created by flouting of the maxim of relation

The relation maxim requires us to speak something relevant. But in a conversation something completely irrelevant to topic maybe underlying something deep unsaid. Sometimes ridiculous words can also achieve humors effect.

Example 11):

“There is a bug in the bottom of my cup!” howled a customer in greasy-spoon café.

“What does this mean?”

“Listen, mate,” growled the owner, “if you want your fortune told; go to find you a gipsy.”

In this example the customer needs a reasonable explanation about the bug, but the owner answer totally different thing irrelevant to his question. It violates the relation principle but achieve humorous effect .another example is listed to illustrate this point.

A young man pretended that his eyesight was very poor when examined, so he was not called up for army service. That evening he went to a movie only to find that the doctor who had examined him was sitting beside him. Immediately he said to the man doctor, “Excuse me, ma’am, but doesn’t this bus go to Main Street?”

The young man’s question has nothing to do with the context. He deliberately flouts the relation maxim to make the doctor believe that he is indeed short-sighted. In this way he covered his lie but it adds into the whole story a humorous effect.

3. Humor created by flouting the speech act theory

3.1 Theoretic review of speech act theory

The speech act theory is one of the important theories in pragmatics; it is initially put forward by the British linguistic philosopher John L. Austin in his lectures at Harvard University in 1955. It is a philosophical explanation of the nature of linguistic communication. It aims to answer the question “What do we do when using language?” According to Austin, a speaker might be performing three acts simultaneously when speaking: locutionary act, illocutionary act and perlocutionary act.

Locutionary act: the act of saying the literal meaning of the utterance.

Illocutionary act: the extra meaning of the utterance produced on the basis of its literal meaning

Perlocutionary act: the effect of the utterance on the hearer, depending on the specific circumstance (Liu & Wen, 2006: 149).

3.2 Humor created by misunderstanding illocutionary act

Example 12):

Teacher: what is the shape of the earth?

Jonny: it is round.

Teacher: How do you know it is round?

Jonny: All right, it’s square then. I don’t want to start an argument about it.

From the teacher’s question, “How do you know it is round?” We can infer the teacher didn’t blame the student’s answer, but wanted the student to tell him the evidence or causes for his answer. However, the student thought the teacher suggested him that the answer was wrong, so he changed his answer.

Example 13):

“Waitress,” shouted the impatient diner, “do I have to sit here and starve all night?”

“No, sir, we close at nine o’clock.”

It is obvious that the customer is dissatisfied with the restaurant’s slow service, and he expressed his complaint. But the cute waitress deliberately understood the complaint on the locutionary act, and she hinted the customer she won’t make him stay too long for his business hour was not all-day round. In the above two examples, humor is produced by misunderstanding illocutionary act.

3.3 Humor created by understanding illocutionary act

In the following example, the seeming unconnected conversation between husband and wife is very coherent on a speech-act level on the condition that both of them understand the illocutionary act.

14) a. Husband: That’s the phone.

b. Wife: I’m in the bathroom

c. Husband: Ok.

This is an exchange between husband and wife when the telephone rings. In (a) The husband is not describing something – it is a thing that needs no description to his wife .In (b), the wife is not describing her action either – people do not usually need to assert that they are in the bathroom. Its illocutionary act are a refusal to comply with the request and issuing a request to her husband to answer the phone instead .In (c) the man accepts his wife’s refusal and accepts her request, meaning “all right, I will answer it” In this piece, the humor lies in getting implied meaning from the seeming unconnected conversation. They both can understand each other without saying something directly.

4. Presupposition and humor

Presupposition can be defined in linguistics as any kind of background assumption against which an expression or utterance makes sense or is rational. Presuppositions refer to the conditions that must be met in order for the intended meaning of a sentence to be regarded as acceptable (Yang, 2008: 177).

Presupposition can be divided into semantic presupposition and pragmatic presupposition. Semantic presupposition can be easily figured out with presupposition triggers. However, pragmatic presupposition is the presupposition of the speaker or those directly involved. It concerns not only knowledge (whether true or false), but also concerns expectations, desires, interests, claims, attitudes towards the world, fears etc. The presupposition in linguistic is affected by some factor or the context. Pragmatic presupposition is the background knowledge of the two parties of communication, and the mutual knowledge is an important factor involving the construction of context. When the mutual knowledge is negated, the presupposition of the previous utterance is cancelled. In some situations, the speaker may deliberately make use of the defeasibility of presupposition to create humorous effect. The following examples are good cases in point.

Example 15):

“If you’re going to work here, young man,” said the boss, “one thing you must learn is that we are very keen on cleanliness in this firm. Did you wipe your feet on the mat as you came in?”

“Oh, yes, sir.”

“And another thing was we are very keen on is truthfulness. There is no mat.”

In this story, when the boss asked the young if he wiped his feet on the mat when he came in, the presupposition is that there is a mat on the floor. For this question, not only the young man, anyone would think that there is a mat on the floor. In fact, the boss set a trap to the candidate through a false presupposition to test whether the candidate is honest.

16) “How often do you cheat in your exam?” if you are asked by your teacher, how will you answer¼Ÿ

There is a presupposition that you do, in fact, cheat in examinations. If you simply answer the how often part of the question by saying the words like “very seldom”, you are behaving as if the presupposition is right, that is, you admit that you have cheated in the exams. In this way we can touch the humorous effect of English.

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Presupposition is a precondition of an utterance and the implicit information it contains plays a role in normal progression of conversation. Ignoring the presupposition of an utterance, making a false presupposition and contradicting the presupposition to an utterance cause the abnormal comprehension to an utterance between the speaker and the hearer. In this way the effect of humor is produced.

It is interesting and important to note that while conversation participants nearly always observe the CP, they do not observe these maxims strictly. Sometimes in order to achieve humorous effect, they will deliberately flout one or two of these maxims.

The so-called sense of humor is the ability to produce or appreciate humor. The violation of one or two of these maxims is one of the main reasons to create humor.

So many examples have been used to illustrate that violating this maxim could produce humor. But how can we sense it? Another pragmatic principle comes up-Conversation implicature.

5. Conversational implicature and humor

Grice’s basic idea is that in communication, speaker aims to follow the CP and its maxims, and that hearers interpret utterances with these maxims in mind. According to Grice, utterance interpretation is not a matter of decoding messages, but rather involves taking the meaning of the sentences together with contextual information, using inferences rules, and working out what the speaker means on the basis of the assumption that the utterance conforms to the maxims. The kind of meaning that is not literally contained in the utterance is called conversational implicature.

Conversational implicature is the key notion to appreciate English humors. In other words, appreciating English humor is no more than getting the implied meaning from the utterance. How can we get the implied meaning and what knowledge do we need? The correct inference of the conversational implicature presupposes the hearer’s mastery of the following knowledge: (1) the conventional content of the utterance (2) the cooperative principle and its maxims (3) the content of the context (4) some background knowledge shared by the speaker and the hearer. The speaker can produce the implicature in two ways: observance and non-observance of the maxims.

In actual speech communication, it is often the case that speaker do not or can not observe the CP and the maxims. For example, the sentence “he is a tiger” literally is false, openly against the maxim of quality, for no human is a tiger. But the hearer still assumes that the speaker is being cooperative and then infers that he is trying to say something distinct from the literal meaning. He can work out that probably the speaker means to say that he has some characteristics of a tiger. Thus humorous effect can be sensed by such kind of expression. Metaphor and irony are standard examples of the flouting of the maxim of quality.

However, the least interesting case is when speaker directly observe the maxims so as to generate conversational implicature.

15) Husband :where are the car keys¼Ÿ

Wife: They’re on the table in the hall.

The wife has answered clearly(manner)and truthfully(quality),and has given just the right information(quantity)and has directly addressed her husband’s goal in asking the question(relation).She has said precisely what she meant, no more and no less, and has generated her conversational implicature.

From the above examples we can see clearly that this pattern of conversation of inference can work only on the assumption that the interlocutors share some background knowledge mentioned above.

6. The politeness principle and English humor

The cooperative principle alone cannot fully explain how people talk. It explains how conversational implicature or English humor gives rise to but it does not tell us why people do not say directly what they mean. Why, for instance, do people say “Could you give me a lift?” instead of “Give me a lift?” The reason has to do with another principle which applies to conversation in addition to the Cooperative Principle— Polite Principle (PP).

In most cases, the indirectness is motivated by consideration of politeness. Politeness is usually regarded by most pragmatists as a means of strategy which is used by a speaker to achieve various purposes, such as saving face, establishing and maintaining harmonious social relations in conversation. Leech (leech, 1983: 165) looks on politeness as crucial in accounting for “why people are often so indirect in conveying what they mean”. He thus puts forward the Politeness Principle so as to “rescue the Cooperative Principle” in the sense that politeness can satisfactorily explain exceptions to and apparent deviation from the CP. Following Grice’s presentation of the CP, leech puts forward six maxims of the polite Principle which run as follows:

Maxim of tact

Minimize the cost to the other

Maximize the benefit to the other

Maxim of generosity

Minimize benefit to self

Maximize cost to self

Maxim of approbation

Minimize dispraise of the other

Maximize praise of the other

Maxim of modesty

Minimize praise of self

Maximize dispraise of self

Maxim of disagreement

Minimize disagreement between self and the other

Maximize agreement between self and the other

Maxim of sympathy

Minimize antipathy between self and the other

Maximize sympathy between self and the other

(Wen & Liu, 2006: 254)

Briefly, this principle requires speakers to minimize the expression of impolite beliefs, give credit to the other person in its positive aspect and not cause offense to the other person in its negative aspect.

6.1 Humor created by abiding the politeness principle

It has been mentioned that interlocutors should observe the maxims of Cooperative Principle in order to keep the communication go smoothly. However, in some situation interlocutors would rather sacrifice the Cooperative Principle than appear impolite. Interestingly, sometimes interlocutors abide by the Politeness will also create humorous effect. The following is such a case.

The story happened when Regan held the post of the American President. During his first official visit to Canada, the demonstrators against the USA interrupted his public speeches off and on. The Canadian Premier Pierre appeared quite embarrassed. Then, Regan with a smile said to Pierre, “Such a demonstration happens quite often in America. I guess these people must be coming from America o purpose to your honorable country. They just want to make me feel at home.” (Xie, 2004: 125)

Regan’s humorous speech immediately made Pierre joyful. When he saw the Premier felt tough to deal with the situation, President Regan applied the generosity maxim and the sympathy maxim in due course. His humor relieved Pierre from the embarrassment and at the same time saved his own positive face. Humor aroused by abiding by the Politeness Principle.

The other maxims are also very important in explaining why certain forms are more acceptable than others. The maxim of approbation will explain why a compliment like “what a marvelous meal you cooked!” is highly valued while “what an awful meal you cooked” is not socially accepted .Thus when criticism is evitable; understatement is preferred as a show of reluctance to dispraise. (Her composition was not as good as it might have been.) The maxim of modesty accounts for the benign nature of utterance like “how stupid of me” and the offensive nature of “how clever of me”.

A: The book is well written.

B: Yes, well written as a whole, but there are some rather boring patches, don’t you think.

Regulated by the maxim of agreement, people tend to exaggerate their common ground first, even when much difference is to follow.

In the following example, notice how much effort speaker B puts into trying to hide the fact that he disagrees with A.

A: She is small, isn’t she?

B: Well, she’s sort of small…certainly not very large …but actually…I would have to say that she is large rather than small.

B’s answer is better than answer directly.

6.2 Humor created by violating the politeness principle

For some special communicative purposes, the interlocutors may violate the maxims of Politeness Principle.

Teacher (to a boy slow at mathematics): You should be ashamed of yourself? Why at your age George Washington was a surveyor!

Boy: Yes, sir, and at your age he was President of the United States.

According to the maxim of Politeness Principle, we can see the teacher firstly violated the maxim to approbation .Faced with the dispraise, the boy struck back the teacher’s dispraise, and he also violated the maxims of approbation .However, in this example, the student saved his own face by violating the maxim of politeness principle.

It is argued that when the CP and PP are in contradiction, it is generally the CP maxims that get sacrificed. When the truth cannot be told for politeness sake, a white lie may be offered. In fact the PP is so powerful that people are often encouraged to violate its maxims in order to ensure a cooperative discourse .Irony is a means to solve the conflict between the CP and PP-when the truth is too offensive to be told, an ironic utterance assumes a polite surface while delivering an unpleasant true message underneath.


Just as Chinese scholar Lin Yutang puts it, humor is part of life. As a phenomenon peculiar to human beings, it can be found everywhere. The study of humor can help us better understand humor. This paper studies the general knowledge of humor and how it is caused. Conducting a pragmatic approach to the understanding of verbal humor makes it clear why humor is humorous and how to understand and create verbal humor effectively and efficiently. Through the employing of pragmatic theories to analyze the creation of humor, it can be found that the Cooperative Principle has strong explaining force to the analysis of verbal humor. According to Grice, conversational implicatures can arise from either strictly and directly observing or deliberately and openly flouting the maxims, that is, speaker can produce implicatures in two ways: observance and non-observance of the maxims. According to Leech, the politeness principle is not just an addition to Grice’s CP, but a necessary complement needed for cases where the CP fails to offer a reasonable explanation. Besides, the speech act theory also plays an important role in appreciating English humor. Through the illocutionary act, extra meaning of the utterance can be produced on the basis of its literal meaning. Presupposition is also an important fact in understanding humor and not getting cheated by others. From the perspective of its function, humor can be used to activate atmosphere, get rid of conflict, attack and counter-attack, and save one’s faces. In our daily life, people create humor not only for humor’s sake, but also for some special communicative purposes. Through the study, people can find the power and charm of humor. If more and more people can be encouraged to use humor in their daily life, the whole society will be more friendly and harmonious.


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