How Paul Grice’s Four Maxims Facilitate Mutual Understanding
- Pages: 3
- Word count: 613
- Category: Communication
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Paul Grice’s four conversational maxims describe the traits of utterances that facilitate efficient, effective and economical conversation. The Maxims of Quality, Quantity, Relevance and Manner detail the ways in which four conversational attributes influence and effect understanding (1975).
The Maxim of Quality emphasizes the importance of being truthful in conversation. Speaking only what you believe to be true and can support with evidence facilitates efficient and economical communication because there is a level of trust between speaker and listener. The listener does not have to wonder whether the speaker is providing misinformation intentionally, or seek more information to verify or refute what is said. Truthful utterances that contain evidence to support what is said reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding based on mistrust.
Grice’s Maxim of Quantity describes the appropriate quantity of information an utterance should contain to facilitate clear understanding. An utterance that contains only the information required for the purpose of conveying meaning – nothing more and nothing less – facilitates efficient, effective communication. Providing too little information makes understanding an inefficient guessing game. Providing too much information can confuse the interpreter and potentially result in misunderstanding. Having to sort through extraneous information hinders efficient and economical communication.
The Maxim of Relevance emphasizes the importance of including information that is relevant to the topic being discussed, or indicating what is irrelevant in an utterance if this is not the case. When an utterance is clogged with irrelevant information, the interpreter must sift through the information to try to find meaning. This will be a subjective type of interpretation, so there is no guarantee meaning will be communicated in tact. The inclusion of irrelevant information in an utterance can bury meaning and make interpretation a slippery process. This hinders the efficiency and effectiveness of communication.
Finally, Grice’s Maxim of Manner details the importance of clarity in utterances. Utterances that are clear, brief and orderly facilitate the smooth exchange of meaning in communication. Avoiding ambiguity and the obscurity of expression makes utterances almost impossible to misinterpret. The interpreter doesn’t have to work to try to understand what is being communicated, as it is presented concisely. Clear communication facilitates an easy exchange of information and ensures meaning isn’t lost in obscure language within an utterance.
The Gricean Maxims promote mutual understanding within a conversation by making the process easy and efficient. When both the speaker and the interpreter approach communication on common ground, a level of cooperation exists that promotes mutual understanding. By contrast, if either participant deliberately or unintentionally “flouts” the four maxims without the other’s knowledge, meaning may not be conveyed.
In other circumstances, flouting or rejecting Grice’s four Maxims can actually facilitate the flow of communication and convey meaning very effectively. Sarcastic or ironic utterances can communicate meaning just as clearly as a relevant, truthful, clear statement. However, mutual understanding will only occur in such cases if both parties involved understand the speaker is deliberately flouting one or more Maxims.
Grice’s Maxims apply to normal communications within common social settings. In the case of literary works of art such as poetry, flouting is a technique authors may use deliberately. Interpreters understand by mutual consent that metaphors, similes, irony, obscurity and other literary devices and constructs may complicate, distort or obscure meaning temporarily or in some cases, permanently. Flouting may be used to convey meaning indirectly for a more subjective interpretation in literary works of art.
Grice, H. P. 1975 ‘Logic and Conversation’, in P. Cole and J. Morgan, eds., Syntax and Semantics, vol. 3, Academic Press, New York, pp. 41-58.