G is for Grice (and his Maxims)

28 03 2010

H.P. Grice

What would the language philosopher H.P. Grice have made of Twitter, I wonder? If you recall (and if you don’t, you have only to check the A-Z!) Grice formulated what is perhaps the most influential theory in the development of pragmatics, now best known as the Cooperative Principle:

The cooperative principle is the principle that speakers try to cooperate with one another. When people take part in conversations they do so on the assumption that the other speakers will observe certain unstated “rules”… (An A-Z of ELT)

 These rules (popularly known as Grice’s Maxims) are:

 1.         Maxim of quantity: Make your contribution just as informative as required.

2.         Maxim of quality: Make your contribution one that is true.

3.         Maxim of relation: Make your contribution relevant.

4.         Maxim of manner: Avoid obscurity and ambiguity. Be brief and orderly.

Of course, speakers frequently violate these maxims, but they do so in the full knowledge that they are breaking the rules – and they will often signal that they are doing so, by, for example, prefacing a statement with “This is totally beside the point, but…” or “I’m sorry to bang on about it, but….” As I point out, in An A-Z, “Without the shared belief in a cooperative principle, we would be compelled to ask, after any utterance, Is that all? Is that true? What has that got to do with it? and Can you be any clearer? The fact that this only normally happens in a court of law suggests that, for day to day purposes, Grice’s maxims apply.”

Twitter seems both to affirm and to challenge Grice’s cooperative principle. In encouraging concision, the 140-character limit works brilliantly to enforce Maxim 1 (The maxim of Quantity) and, to a lesser extent, Maxim 4 (The maxim of Manner). But how do you explain the relevance (maxim 3) of tweets like the following:

Went out and bought a plastic lining for the compost frame and put that in.

Chicken burger with avocado and blue cheese, accompanied by butternut squash wedges.

Sitting with my brother discussing the weather. 

By what possible standards could the above texts be considered relevant? And yet a significant proportion of tweets that are sent are of this nature. Perhaps the assumption is that, if you’ve chosen to follow me, everything I tweet is relevant. And that, in the absence of a shared world (which would confer a degree of relevance), trivia helps to create one.

Be that as it may, Grice’s maxims have helped in the formulation of some ground-rules for Discussion Board postings on the on-line MA TESOL that I teach on. For example:

1.         be brief – 250 words max.

2.         be relevant: stick to the topic; if you need to digress, signal the fact in your subject line;  

3.         be explicit: change the subject line to make it clear whether your posting is a new response to the main DB task, or a digression (see above) or simply a social intervention;

To which I’ve added:

4.         be original (i.e. no plagiarism)

5.         be appropriate (i.e. this is an academic context even if the medium tolerates a degree of informality) and

6.         be courteous (i.e. no flaming)

So far, these rules seem to have worked fine, on the Discussion Boards, to encourage both cooperative interaction and critical thinking. What chance of imposing them on Twitter!?

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13 responses

28 03 2010
Fernando Guarany

Hi Scott,
Interesting rules.
What chance of IMPOSING them on Twitter!? As I see it, none whatsoever. At least not formally.
However, organically speaking, all six rules are already part of the Twitter ethos, do you agree?
Rule 1: 140 characters. (imposed) =)
Rule 2: has to do with the reason why you’re tweeting, in my case ELT. If you start only sending continuous tweets associated with raising buffaloes on the Marajó islands to your elt PLN, the consequence is likely to be a decrease in your number of followers.
Rule 3: has more to do with Discussion Boards/Forums than Twitter.
Rule 4: People will know when someone copies a tweet from someone else and send it as his own. Consequences?
Rule 5: the register will depend on who the tweeters in your PLN are.
Rule 6: A blanket rule; being courteous is probably applicable in most f2f and online situations.

30 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Fernando, for correlating my Discussion boad Maxims with Twitter. Of course, I was not really serious about imposing any rules on Twitter. Those who occasionally attempt to do so (the “Twitter Thought Police”) are like those indignant letter-writers who complain to The Daily Telegraph about split infinitives and nouns being turned into verbs! A losing battle!

28 03 2010
Alastair Grant

The Maxim of Relation initially seems on shaky ground – for the uninitiated visitor of a Tweeter’s page, there’s very little by way of a schematic compass for Tweets seen a propos of nothing, but then if you’re following the Tweeter, any text produced is relevant, as Scott says.

So…implications for teaching? As teachers, we are almost duty-bound by the maxims – at least, learners totally trust us to be relevant (not talking about the Present Perfect Simple when you should be talking about the second conditional) as they do each other when participating in any kind of communicative activity.

Activity-wise, an often flagged sub-skill for speaking is turn-taking (very different in my context of Argentina to that in the UK). Perhaps using any pen-pal chat style programme could help with being brief, relevant and clear? The speech/writing obscurity here seems highly exploitable.

Thinking as I’m typing, there’s also a fiddly little CPE exercise where learners must summarize a text in 50-70 words. I’m going to get my students to pretend they’re Tweeting their summaries – Grice’s Maxim of Manner reigns supreme here too.

A further thought… Re. discussion boards, with the advent of “Trolling” (luring forum newbies into arguments, just for kicks) and “Griefing” (purposefully causing annoyance to fellow forum users by flaming), does the “Be True” part (“do not say what you believe is false/lack evidence for”) kinda go a-begging? However, there’s still Quantity and Relation firmly upheld here, I suppose…

29 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Alastair. I hadn’t thought about Grice’s maxims in the context of teacher-learner discourse (well, not when I was preparing that post, anyway) but your comment about being “duty-bound” to the maxims got me thinking. For instance, you quite often witness a mismatch between teacher intention and learner interpretation in the area of correction – where the teacher might attempt a “veiled” correction of the type:

S: I don’t go to work yesterday.
T: Oh, you didn’t go to work?

where the learner assumes relevance to content (not to form) and responds):

S: No, I am sick.

Or the other way round, even, where the teacher’s follow-up comment might be taken as a correction:

S: I’m not good at maths.
T: Oh you aren’t?
S: No I aren’t.

(That’s invented, of course: I’d be interested to know if anyone has documented examples).

29 03 2010
Elizabeth Anne

Whenever I hear the word “Grice”, I always think that there is a kind of meta-maxime missing … and that is “that the person listening will be capable of understanding” before any communication can occur.

Let me explain – when I first arrived in France, on hearing my dreadful accent some people would speak to me as though I was half stupid, i.e. they assumed I was not capable of understanding.

Or taken to it’s extreme, faced with someone who “doesn’t speak the language” some people literally just do not say anything at all (or at most, shout out individual words in the direction of the person who speaks the different language) which once again is based on the assumption that the other is not capable of understanding – whereas, attempting to communicate in whole sentences might make the guessing game better.

I would love to be able to express my missing-meta-maxime in scholarly terms.. because it seems to me there is something to be formalised in this direction ….

30 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that, Elizabeth.

It’s true: the co-operative principle does assume a shared ‘code’ – not just of conduct, but of language. And it reminds us that all communication is interactive, and, hence, negotiated. Jenny Thomas (in possibly one of the best books on the subject: Meaning in Interaction: An Introduction to Pragmatics (Longman 1995)) makes this her thesis, i.e. “the view that meaning is not something that is inherent in the words alone, nor is it produced by the speaker alone, nor by the hearer alone. Making meaning is a dynamic process, involving the negotiation of meaning between speaker and hearer, the context of utterance (physical, social and linguistic) and the meaning potential of an utterance” (p. 22).

She goes on to make the point that Grice’s maxims apply only where there is some common ground: “There will be times when we may suspend our assumption that our interlocutor is operating according to the same conversational norms as we are: we may be talking to a young child who has yet to acquire our community’s conversational norms, to a drunk, to someone in pain or distress. Or we may be talking to a person whom we have reason to think may have different conversational norms from our own (a member of a different cultural or linguistic community)” (p. 62).

Failure to take these factors into account, or to overcompensate for them (as in the case of your French-speaking interlocutors) may result in pragmatic failure.

30 03 2010
Matt Byrne

If Grice could be brought back (via Tardis?) to consider the internet of today, he might notice that words such as ‘talk’ and ‘conversation’ have come to mean something rather different. Surely the talk exchanges that he referred to were ‘real time’ spoken interactions rather than typing-and-posting?

30 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Matt. And you’re right: as far as I know, Grice was concerned with describing the ground-rules of spoken interaction. But, given that so much of ‘e-communication’ (such as Twitter, text messages, online discussion boards etc) is informal, interactive, and interpersonal, it’s arguable that it IS conversation, just in another form. That is to say, a Twitter exchange shares more charactersistics of informal chat than it does with, say, a traditional exchange of letters. Hence, the conversational maxims ought really still apply. That is to say, we make the same assumptions about the writer/speaker/tweeter’s knowledge of the ground-rules, whether chatting, texting, or tweeting.

30 03 2010

Grice has been criticised as ethnocentric, that his maxims may be less applicable in different cultures… Has anyone noticed this happening with tweets?

30 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Yes, one of the earliest critiques of Grice was based on evidence from Madagascar, where it was found that, out of deference, speakers regularly supply less information than is necessary. So, a mother might ask her son “Is the person still sleeping?” where ‘the person’ refers to the woman’s husband, but where a taboo on naming means that the maxim of quantity is suspended (Keenan, 1976). In their book on politeness, Brown and Levinson (1978, 1987) point out, however, that “if no such Quantity Maxim were operating as an underlying assumption, then the son would not assume that he should be able to identify the referent, and all such referring expressions would fail to denote. In fact, Malagasy-speakers habitually do understand such vague expressions, and they do so only on the assumption that the speaker is being cooperative…” In other words, the Malagasy-speakers can retrieve the intended meaning because they assume the maxim of quantity is being flouted for a reason.

This is a bit like the way we might avoid naming something in front of a child as in “Is there any of that cold white stuff in the fridge?” (Or even a dog! “Is it time to take the dog for a you-know-what?”) Assuming the speaker is being co-operative, and not suffering from a brain disorder, we look for the meaning ‘between the lines”.

But where – between which lines – do I find the meaning of “Chicken burger with avocado and blue cheese, accompanied by butternut squash wedges”?!

31 03 2010
Marisa Constantinides

Grice would certainly have formulated his maxim of quantity differently had he used Greek discourse samples as his source, or even the discourse of Arabic speakers – lengthier slow to get to the point, out of respect to politeness principles which prevail. ( E.g. See my long introductory sentence; is this being Greek?)

With regard to the maxim of Relevance, I think there is always an underlying assumption of relevance. If my twitter followers are people in my field, then I presume that a tweet which directs them to an interesting link has Relevance.

Twitter communication may lack coherence and cohesion (though not always), but I do not think that Relevance is a key issue. If I tweet “Check out the latest X shoes” that may be in breach of what my followers consider of relevance to them/a flouting…

Another question might be whether and to what degree they obey Lakoff’s politeness principles (subsumed under Grice’s maxim of Manner, as far as I am concerned):

1- make your receiver feel good
2- do not impose
3- give your receiver options

One could claim that retweets adhere to No 1 but what about No’s 2 & 3. :-)

2 04 2010

Why was the figure of 140 characters decided upon?

2 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

“The 140-character limit on message length was initially set for compatibility with SMS messaging…” (Wikipedia)

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