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!?