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Grice's Four Maxims

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1663 words Published: 8th May 2017

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Grice has proposed four maxims for conversation. Firstly, Grice proposes two maxims under the umbrella of quantity. Speakers have to make their contribution as informative as is required and should not make their contribution more informative than is required. These two maxims are clearly related to the amount of information given between the speakers in their conversation or communication. Grice indicates that the amount of information between the speakers is necessary to let the communication goes on. Speakers need to avoid superfluous information through communication. Clearly, these two maxims are implicitly related to each other. A simple example is ” A man stops his vehicle in the middle of the road to briefly ask you for directions. He may ask ”Where is the post office?”, the listener may say ”Not far” or ”Continue on, and make the second left up there. You’ll see it” (Jacob. 2001, 77). Clearly, the second response is more related to the maxim of quantity. Secondly, Grice posits maxim of quality which indicates that “Try to make your contribution one that is true”; but, this is separated into two specific maxims: 1. do not say what you believe to be false. 2. do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence. (Grice 1989, 27). These two maxims seem quite distinct. The former requires speakers to always say true things rather false things while the second requires them to have some adequacy of their responses. For example, a speaker may ask ”Should I buy my son this new sports car?. Speaker B may respond ” I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, his car runs fine or Yeah that sounds like a good idea, his car breaks down all the time” (Jacob. 2001, 77). Next Grice adds another maxim called maxim of relation. Grice refers to this maxim by simply saying that “Be Relevant” (Grice 1989, 27). With respect to this maxim, Grice believes that speakers should add relevant input to the conversation being done. For instance, a speaker may ask ”How are you doing in school?. Speaker B may reply ”What fine weather we’re having lately! Or Not so well, I’m afraid. I’d rather not discuss it” (Jacob. 2001, 77). Unfortunately, this maxim has received considerable criticism. Searle, Wilson and Sperber have all rejected and criticized this maxim. Searle added that ” though it is initially intuitive, it is ultimately problematic (Searle 1992, 14). Lastly, Grice also posits a fourth maxim which indicates that speakers should avoid ambiguity and obscurity of expressions during their communication. They also have to be brief and orderly. A good example is ” Can you take out the trash? Sure, but we need to talk about how we are assigning the chores around here when I get back”. (Jacob 2001, 77). Grice pointed out that maxims of manner may be insufficient and gave it little importance compared to the other maxims. Grice writes that “It is obvious that observance of some of these maxims is a matter of less urgency than is the observance of others; a man who has expressed himself with undue prolixity would, in general, be open to milder comment than would a man who has said something he believes to be false” (Grice 1989, 27). Critics have argued that maxim of ambiguity is the most important one compared to the other maxims because of its direct relation to what is called equivocation. Grice (1989) also suggests that there are other maxims such as social and moral. He also presents four ways in which speakers violate the four maxims. These ways are violation, opting out, a clash and flouting maxims. Guo (2006) presents a simple explanation of these four ways. The explanation comes in order. First, a speaker may opt out of observing the maxim due to his/her unwillingness to cooperate with another speaker in the way maxim requires. Second, a speaker does not observe the four maxims due to the difficulty of conciliating a maxim with another at the same time. Third, a speaker may also fail in observing the maxim because of his/her intention to force the hearer to look for the meaning which is distinct from the expressed meaning. Lastly, a speaker intentionally violates the cooperative principles which results in lying. In short, these four maxims have come as an assumption to effective communication among speakers; however, speakers may violate these maxims which results in ineffective communication as Grice and his proponents have suggested.

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It is said that following the four maxims leads to effective communication. Here, the relationship between the four maxims and communication is discussed. Schoolfield (2007) asserted that Communication is considered the basis of Gricean theory. It is also considered the point of conversation as clear communication can occur by means of a dialogue. Conversation is used to send information from one speaker to another. The efficiency of this sending is determined by communication. Moreover, the similarity between Grice’s four maxims and the communicative goal of conversation, they require the cooperative principle to lead to effective communication. When one approaches conversations in terms of communication, the four maxims must be mentioned. For instance, if a speaker does not give true information during his dialogue while his aim is communication, this seems that he does not act in a cooperatively. Schoolfield (2007) discussed the relationship between the four maxims and communication. He points out the first maxim “Make your contribution as informative as is required,” is necessary in communication. Speakers provide an amount of information to communicate the intended idea while others provide insufficient information as a violation to the maxim so that they will not achieve the goal of communication. Thus, if the person has the goal of communication, he/she must include relevant facts related to the topic of the dialogue. As for “Do not make your contribution more than is required,”, Grice (1989) believes that it is not necessary in communication. Culturally, this is clear in English-speaking countries where people find it desirable not to give excessive information during communication, as Grice notes, a “waste of time” (Grice 1989, 26). Communication requires “do not say what you believe to be false,” as there will be a failure in communication if one is not honest in the information he/she states. Schoolfield (2007) this maxim is far necessary in cooperative information communication so that the information must not express something false. In addition, “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence,” is an acceptable rule for communicators. Therefore, Schoolfield (2007) argues that there must be at least some basic level of understanding as to what can count as evidence or they may be very serious breakdowns in communication. Relevance maxim is most desirable in communicative conversations because when we receive certain information, communication requires responses that are relevant to the information given; however, it is sometime irrelevant in achieving the goals of communication. (Hintikka 1986 argued that relevancy is important in cooperative and effective communication; however, many other have reduced the importance of relevance to efficiency. As to manner maxim, as Grice states, “Avoid obscurity of expression”, it is also necessary for effective communication since one must have clear and coherent communication. Schoolfield (2007) believes that if there is not some clarity in communication, then much confusion will arise or increase for the listeners. Likewise, “avoid ambiguity” will be necessary for cooperative communication (Grice 1989, 27). Schoolfield (2007) explained that ambiguity arises due to two interpretations that come from one statement. Thus, the avoidance of ambiguity, with regards to effective communication, must only be followed when it can occur. Next is, “Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity),” (Grice 1989, 27). Schoolfield (2007) believes that brevity is a cultural norm and helpful in communication. Thus, while a consideration for avoiding “unnecessary prolixity” is acceptable, any issue of brevity being required for cooperative communication will be only decided within a conventional framework. Lastly, “Be orderly” (Grice 1989, 27). Schoolfield (2007) indicated that this maxim is not necessary in effective communication. Instead, he has given much attention to the speed of giving information rather the orderliness of giving information. The Gricen theory is believed to be true not just for conversation, but also for written communication. Cooper (1982:112) maintained that ”this theory is also common in writing and what Grice says about conversation applies equally to all communication. In conclusion, through this brief discussion of the four maxims and their role in communication, I can say that some of Gricean maxims are not necessary in communication while others are.

Gricen maxims play a crucial role in communication. However, his theory is always argued by many scholars and researchers. First, it’s not clear whether the maxims work in other languages and cultures as some cultures such as Malagasy follow completely different maxims in their communication. In their culture, speakers are not willing to share information. They tend to evade direct questions and reply incomplete answers. Second, they are not a complete listing of the rules we follow in conversation; for example, there are also rules about, say, politeness, which are not addressed in his maxims. Third, the Gricean Maxims, despite their wording, are only meant to describe the commonly accepted traits of successful cooperative communication.


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