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Pragmatics: rules of conversation

Pragmatics: rules of conversation



Department of English Grammar

Course paper

”Pragmatics: rules of conversation”

Oleksandra Iurchuk

group 501

English Department

Research Advisor:

Kandidate of Linguistics,

Professor I.I. Seryakova

Kyiv 2009



Part I. Theoretical Aspects of Conversational Principles

1.1 Philosophical background

1.2 Cooperative principle by H.P.Grice

1.2.1 Maxims of conversation

1.2.2 Conversation implicatures

Part II. Applied Aspects of Conversational Analysis

2.1 Following the cooperative principle

2.2 Flouting the cooperative principle

General conclusion



Language is the main device of communication. As a means to build a social relation, language has various functions. Malinowski in Halliday classifies language functions into two big groups. The first is pragmatic, in which this function is the further divided into narrative and active. In this case, the main function of language is as a means of communication. The second is magical, in which language is used in ceremonial or religious activities in the culture.

A mutual understanding is inevitably needed by a speaker and a hearer in order to construct a good communication. There are times when people say (or write) exactly what they mean, but generally they are not totally explicit. They manage to convey far more than their words mean, or even something quite different from the meaning of their words. Understanding an utterance syntactically and semantically is not sufficient since the meaning of utterance is not only stated but it is also implied. In order to comprehend the implied meaning of an utterance, implicature becomes unavoidably essential. Implicature is a proposition that is implied by the utterance in a context even though that proposition is not a part of nor an entailment of what is actually said. Cooperative principles proposed by Grice mentions that a speaker makes his conversational contribution such as is required at the stage in which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which he is engaged. [13] He, then, further divides the cooperative principles into four maxims: maxim of quality, maxim of quantity, maxim of relevance, and maxim of manner.

To grasp the notion of communication, context happens to be completely important since speaker and hearer have to know the context in which the conversation takes place. Therefore, understanding context can be a helpful way to know the speaker and hearer’s intention.

Aim of the course paper is to define and describe the rules of conversation according to Paul Grice’s philosophy and their practical application.

Object of the course paper is the Cooperative principle and Maxims of conversation.

Subject of the course paper is the conversational analysis according to Cooperative principle and Maxims of Conversation.

Part I. Theoretical Aspects of Conversational Principles


1.1 Philosophical background

Before starting to discus the rules of conversation, it is important, in our opinion, to mention some philosophical aspects of Grice’s work on language. The aim here is to show the recurring themes in Grice’s work, by close reference to his papers and also to commentaries on them.

The first point to make is that there are two broad aspects to the Gricean program. There is the work on implicatures, with which we are largely concerned here, but there is also the earlier work on sentence-meaning and speaker-meaning. Our position is that although there are distinct foci to the two aspects of the Gricean program, they are also closely interrelated: to understand the motivation behind implicatures, a basic understanding of Grice’s account of speaker-meaning, sentence- meaning and speaker-intention is also necessary.[6]

Paul Grice is best known for his contributions to the theory of meaning and communication. This work (collected in Grice 1989) has had lasting importance for philosophy and linguistics, with implications for cognitive science generally. His three most influential contributions concern the nature of communication, the distinction betwen speaker's meaning and linguistic meaning, and the phenomenon of conversational implicature.

Grice's concept of speaker's meaning was an ingenious refinement of the crude idea that communication is a matter of intentionally affecting another person's psychological states. He discovered that there is a distinctive, rational means by which the effect is achieved: by way of getting one's audience to recognize one's intention to achieve it. The intention includes, as part of its content, that the audience recognize this very intention by taking into account the fact that they are intended to recognize it. A communicative intention is thus a self-referential, or reflexive, intention. It does not involve a series of nested intentions--the speaker does not have an intention to convey something and a further intention that the first be recognized, for then this further intention would require a still further intention that it be recognized, and so on ad infinitum. Confusing reflexive with iterated intentions, to which even Grice himself was prone, led to an extensive literature replete with counterexamples to ever more elaborate characterizations of the intentions required for genuine communication (Strawson, Schiffer), and to the spurious objection that it involves an infinite regress (Sperber and Wilson, whose own "relevance" theory neglects the reflexivity of communicative intentions). Although the idea of reflexive intentions raises subtle issues (the exchange between Recanati and Bach), it clearly accounts for the essentially overt character of communicative intentions, namely, that their fulfillment consists their recognition (by the intended audience). This idea forms the core of a Gricean approach to the theory of speech acts, including nonliteral and indirect speech acts (Bach and Harnish). Different types of speech acts (statements, requests, apologies, etc.) may be distinguished by the type of propositional attitude (belief, desire, regret etc.) being expressed by the speaker.[3]

Grice's distinction between speaker's and linguistic meaning reflects the fact that what a speaker means in uttering a sentence freque diverges from what the sentence itself means. A speaker can mean something other than what the sentence means, as in "Nature abhors a vacuum," or something more, as in "Is there a doctor in the house?" Grice invoked this distinction for two reasons. First, he thought linguistic meaning could be reduced to (standardized) speaker's meaning. This reductive view has not gained wide acceptance, because of its extreme complexity and because it requires the controversial assumption that language is essentially a vehicle for communicating thoughts and not a medium of thought itself. Still, many philosophers would at least concede that mental content is a more fundamental notion than linguistic meaning, and perhaps even that semantics reduces to propositioal attitude psychology.

Grice's other reason for invoking the distinction between speaker's and linguistic meaning was to combat extravagant claims, made by so-called "ordinary language" philosophers, about various important philosophical terms, such as 'believes' or 'looks.' For example, it was sometimes suggested that believing implies not knowing, because to say, e.g., "I believe that alcohol is dangerous" is to imply that one does not know this, or to say "The sky looks blue" is to imply that the sky might not actually be blue. However, as Grice pointed out, what carries such implications is not what one is saying but that one is saying it (as opposed to the stronger 'I know that alcohol is dangerous" or "The sky is blue). Grice also objected to certain ambiguity claims, e.g., that 'or' has an exclusive as well as inclusive sense, as in "I would like an apple or an orange," by pointing out that the use of 'or,' not the word itself, that carries the implication of exclusivity. Grice's Modified Occam's Razor ("Senses are not to be multiplied beyond necessity") cut back on a growing conflation of (linguistic) meaning with use, and has since helped linguists appreciate the importance of separating, so far as possible, the domains of semantics and pragmatics. [3]

Grice has been associated with the Oxford group known (mainly by their opponents) as ‘Ordinary Language Philosophers’, who thought “important features of natural language were not revealed, but hidden” by the traditional logical approach of such ‘Ideal Language Philosophers’ as Frege and Russell.[7] However, it is very clear that the concept, and use of, logic is considered a basic philosophical tool by Grice. The relationship between conversation and logic is the starting point of Grice [9], it is considered important enough to be in the titles of his two main implicature papers (Grice), yet the concept of logic is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the CP.

Grice [7] starts with the long-accepted fact that formal devices representing the logical functions of and and or, and so forth, diverge in meaning from their natural language counterparts. He then sets out briefly the extremes of the two opposing positions in relation to this. The formalists take the position that the additional meanings which can be found in natural language are imperfections of that system, and: “The proper course is to conceive and begin to construct an ideal language, incorporating the formal devices, the sentences of which will be clear, determinate in truth value, and certifiably free from metaphysical implications; the foundations of science will now be philosophically secure, since the statements of the scientist will be expressible within this ideal language.” [9]

Whereas the non-formalist holds that as speakers can understand the words which don’t have logical equivalence, then this shouldn’t be considered a deficiency in the system: language has other functions rather than serving science.

Grice’s position is that the formalists are failing to account for the logic of conversation – there are systems there, it is a question of identifying them: “Moreover, while it is no doubt true that the formal devices are especially amenable to systematic treatment by the logician, it remains the case that there are very many inferences and arguments, expressed in natural language and not in terms of these devices, that are nevertheless recognizably valid. I have, moreover, no intention of entering the fray on behalf of either contestant. I wish, rather, to maintain that the common assumption of the contestants that the divergences do in fact exist is (broadly speaking) a common mistake, and that the mistake arises from an inadequate attention to the nature and importance of the conditions governing conversation.” Grice. [7]

Therefore, the aim of Grice [7] is to demonstrate the existence of a logic to the operation of conversations. It is not about conversations being cooperative – that might be an outcome of the logical structure, but it is certainly not its raison d’etre (Although it is very unclear that cooperation is such a feature of conversation.). The use of implicatures as an investigative tool in Grice [8] was not only to demonstrate the philosophical utility of implicatures, but also to demonstrate that structures which had evaded the grasp of formal logic could be accounted for in a systematic way. Thus the formalists’ argument for the imperfections of natural language is undermined: if meanings can be predicted reliably from forms, then their philosophical worries are unfounded. Of course, it is arguable that this aim has yet to be achieved, if, indeed, it is possible. However, the point to be made here is that Grice has chosen his title discussion of this carefully, to reflect his wider interests. Grice [7] are about logic, not cooperation. This is why the importance of logic recurs throughout his work on the philosophy of language, whereas cooperation per se is not mentioned elsewhere.

1.2 Cooperative principle by H.P. Grice

Paul Grice emphasized the distinction Voltaire makes between what words mean, what the speaker literally says when using them, and what the speaker means or intends to communicate by using those words, which often goes considerably beyond what is said. A asks B to lunch and B replies, "I have a one o'clock class I'm not prepared for." B has conveyed to A that B will not be coming to lunch, although B hasn't literally said so. B intends for A to figure out that by indicating a reason for not coming to lunch (the need to prepare his class) B intend to convey that B is not coming to lunch for that reason. The study of such conversational implicatures is the core of Grice's influential theory. [8]

Grice's so-called theory of conversation starts with a sharp distinction between what someone says and what someone ‘implicates’ by uttering a sentence. What someone says is determined by the conventional meaning of the sentence uttered and contextual processes of disambiguation and reference fixing; what she implicates is associated with the existence to some rational principles and maxims governing conversation (setting aside "conventional implicatures" which we discuss below). What is said has been widely identified with the literal content of the utterance; what is implicated, the implicature, with the non-literal, what it is (intentionally) communicated, but not said, by the speaker. Consider his initial example:

A and B are talking about a mutual friend, C, who is now working in a bank. A asks B how C is getting on in his job, and B replies: Oh quite well, I think; he likes his colleagues, and he hasn't been to prison yet.[7]

What did B say by uttering "he hasn't been to prison yet"? Roughly, all he literally said of C was that he hasn't been to prison up to the time of utterance. This is what the conventional sentence meaning plus contextual processes of disambiguation, precisification of vague expressions and reference fixing provide.

But, normally, B would have implicated more than this: that C is the sort of person likely to yield to the temptation provided by his occupation. According to Grice, the ‘calculation’ of conversational implicatures is grounded on common knowledge of what the speaker has said (or better, the fact that he has said it), the linguistic and extra linguistic context of the utterance, general background information, and the consideration of what Grice dubs the ‘Cooperative Principle (CP)’: Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.[7]

In other words, we as speakers try to contribute meaningful, productive utterances to further the conversation. It then follows that, as listeners, we assume that our conversational partners are doing the same.

You can think of reasons why someone might be uncooperative in conversation (maybe they’re being interrogated for information they don’t want to give up; maybe they hate the person they’re talking to; maybe they’re just crazy) but in the vast majority of conversations, it’s safe to assume that both participants are trying to be cooperative.

This assumption (that the cooperative principle holds, and the people we’re speaking to are trying to cooperate) explains two things:

(1) why speech errors are often ignored (or even go unnoticed) in conversation. As long as the meaning the speaker is trying to get across is clear, the listener usually gives them the benefit of the doubt and focuses on the meaning.

(2) why we can find meaning in statements which, on the surface, seem ridiculous, untrue or unrelated (i.e. metaphors, sarcasm, overstatement, understatement, etc.) Rather than assuming that our conversational partner is lying, crazy, or speaking at random, we assume they’re trying to get across some meaning, and we can figure out what that meaning is. [6]

The cooperative principle can be divided into four maxims, called the Gricean maxims, describing specific rational principles observed by people who obey the cooperative principle; these principles enable effective communication.

1.2.1 Maxims of conversation

The philosopher Paul Grice proposed four conversational maxims that arise from the pragmatics of natural language. The Gricean Maxims are a way to explain the link between utterances and what is understood from them. The Maxims are based on his cooperative principle, which states, ‘Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged,’ and is so called because listeners and speakers must speak cooperatively and mutually accept one another to be understood in a particular way. The principle describes how effective communication in conversation is achieved in common social situations and is further broken down into the four Maxims of Quality, Quantity, Relevance and Manner.

The category of Quantity relates to the quantity of information to be provided, and under it fall the following maxims:

1.                 Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

2.                 Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

(The second maxim is disputable; it might be said that to be over-informative is not a transgression of the CP but merely a waste of time. However, it might be answered that such overinformativeness may be confusing in that it is liable to raise side issues; and there may also be an indirect effect, in that the hearers may be misled as a result of thinking that there is some particular point in the provision of the excess of information. However this may be, there is perhaps a different reason for doubt about the admission of this second maxim, namely, that its will be secured by a later maxim, which concerns relevance [7]).

Under the category of Quality fall a supermaxim – “Try to make your contribution one that is true” – and two more specific maxims:

1.                 Do not say what you believe to be false.

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

Under the category of Relation Grice places a single maxim, namely, ‘Be relevant.’ Though the maxim itself it terse, its formulation conceals a number of problems like questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be, how these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects of conversation are legitimately changed, and so on.

Finally, under the category of Manner, which Grice understands as relating not (like the previous categories) to what is said but, rather, to HOW what is said is to be said, is included the supermaxim – ‘Be perspicuous’ – and various maxims such as:

1.                 Avoid obscurity of expression.

2.                 Avoid ambiguity.

3.                 Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).

4.                 Be orderly.

It is obvious that the observance of some of these maxims is a matter of less urgency than is the observance of others; a man 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. Indeed, it might be felt that the importance of at least the first maxim of Quality is such that it should not be included in a scheme of the kind Grice was constructing; other maxims come into operation only on the assumption that this maxim of Quality is satisfied. While this may be correct, so far as generation of implicatures is concerned it seems to play a role not totally different from the other maxims, and it will be convenient, for the present at least, to treat it as a member of the list of maxims.

There are all sorts of other maxims (aesthetic, social, or moral in character), such as ‘Be polite’, that are also generate nonconventional implicatures. The conversational maxims, however, and the conversational implicatures connected with them, are specially connected with the particular purpose that talk (and so, talk exchange) is adapted to serve and is primarily employed to serve. When Grice stated his maxims, the main purpose were a maximally effective exchange of information; this specification is too narrow, and the scheme needs to be generalized to allow for such general purpose as influencing or directing the actions of others.

These maxims may be better understood as describing the assumptions listeners normally make about the way speakers will talk, rather than prescriptions for how one ought to talk. Philosopher Kent Bach writes:‘...We need first to get clear on the character of Grice’s maxims. They are not sociological generalizations about speech, nor they are moral prescriptions or proscriptions on what to say or communicate. Although Grice presented them in the form of guidelines for how to communicate successfully, I think they are better construed as presumptions about utterances, presumptions that we as listeners rely on and as speakers exploit.’[1]

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