Cooperative principle definition Maxims of Grice

Cooperative principle

In the social sciences in general and in linguistics specifically, the cooperative principle describes how people achieve effective conversational communication in common social situations—that is, how listeners and speakers act cooperatively and mutually accept each other to be understood in a particular way. In this article we will describe the definition of cooperative principle.

The linguist Paul Grice introduced the concept into his pragmatic theory , arguing thus:

“Make your contribution as needed, at the stage where it occurs, for the accepted purpose or direction of the speaking exchange you are engaged in”

Hence, the cooperative principle is broken down into the four Grice conversational maxims , called the Grice maxims – quantity, quality, relation, and manner. These four maxims describe specific rational principles observed by people who follow the cooperative principle in pursuit of effective communication. Applying Grice‘s maxims is a way of explaining the link between utterances and what is understood from them.

Although formulated as a prescriptive command , the principle is intended to be a description of how people normally behave in conversation. Lesley Jeffries and Daniel McIntyre (2010) describe Grice‘s maxims as “encapsulating the assumptions we prototypically hold when we engage in conversation.”  The assumption that maxims will be followed helps to interpret statements that seem to despise them on a superficial level; this kind of mockery often signals unspoken implicatures that contribute to the utterance’s meaning.

Maxims of Grice

The concept of the cooperative principle was introduced by linguist Paul Grice in his pragmatic theory . Grice has researched the ways people extract meaning from language . In his essay Logic and Conversation (1975)  and in the book Studies in the Way of Words (1989), Grice outlined four key categories, or maxims, of conversation – quantity, quality, relation and manner – under which there are more specific maxims and submaximals. 

They describe specific rational principles observed by people who follow the cooperative principle in search of effective communication. [9] [2] Applying Grice‘s maxims is therefore a way of explaining the link between utterances and what is understood from them.

According to Grice

“Our conversations do not normally consist of a succession of disjointed comments and it would not be rational for them to do so. They are characteristically, at least to some degree, cooperative efforts; and each participant recognizes in them, to some degree, a common purpose or set of purposes, or at least a mutually accepted direction.

This purpose or direction may be fixed at the outset (eg, by an initial proposal of a question for discussion), or may evolve during the exchange; it may be quite definite, or it may be so undefined as to leave considerable latitude for participants (as in casual conversation). But at each stage, some possible conversational moves would be excluded as unsuitable for conversation.

We can then formulate an approximate general principle that participants are expected (ceteris paribus) to observe, namely: Make your conversational contribution, as required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the exchange of conversations with the which you are committed. One could label this the Cooperative Principle . [emphasis added]

On the assumption that some general principle such as this is acceptable, one may perhaps distinguish four categories under one or the other, from which certain more specific maxims and sub-maxims will fall, the following will, in general, yield results in accordance with the Cooperative Principle. Echoing Kant, I call these categories Quantity, Quality, Relation and Manner.”

1-Maximum quantity (length and depth of content)

In simple terms, the maximum amount is to be informative . 


  1. Make your contribution as informative as necessary (for the current objectives of the exchange).
  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than necessary.

In his book, Grice uses the following analogy for this maxim: “If you are helping me fix a car, I expect your contribution to be neither more nor less than necessary. of four screws, I hope it gives me four instead of two or six.” 

2-Maximum quality (true)

In simple terms, the maxim of quality is to be truthful . 


  • Try to make your contribution real.


  1. Don’t say what you believe to be false.
  2. Don’t say what you don’t have adequate evidence for. 

In his book, Grice uses the following analogy for this maxim: “I hope your contributions are genuine and not spurious. If I need sugar as an ingredient in the cake you are helping me to make, I don’t expect you to hand me salt; I need a spoon, don’t expect a rubber spoon.” 

3-Maximum ratio (relevance)

  • Be relevant – that is, ensure that all information provided is relevant to the current exchange; therefore, omitting any irrelevant information. 

In his book, Grice uses the following analogy for this maxim: “I expect a partner’s contribution to be appropriate to the immediate needs at each stage of the transaction. If I’m mixing ingredients for a cake, I don’t expect to be handed a good book, or even a kitchen towel (although this may be an appropriate contribution at a later stage).” 

Concerning this maxim, Grice writes,

“While the maxim itself is concise, its formulation hides a number of problems that concern me greatly: questions about what different types and focuses of relevance can exist, how they change in the course of a conversation, how to allow for the fact that the subjects of conversations are legitimately changed, and so on. I find the treatment of such questions extremely difficult and hope to return to them in later works. “

4-Maximum shape (clarity)

In simple terms, the maxim of manner is to be clear .  Whereas the former maxims are primarily concerned with what is said, manner maxims are concerned with what is said. 


  • Be insightful.


  1. Avoid obscurity of expression – that is, avoid language that is difficult to understand.
  2. Avoid ambiguity – that is, avoid language that can be interpreted in multiple ways.
  3. Be brief – that is, avoid unnecessary prolixity.
  4. Be orderly – that is, provide information in an order that makes sense and facilitates processing by the recipient. 

Maxims in practice

“We must first clarify the character of Grice‘s maxims. They are not sociological generalizations about discourse, nor are they moral prescriptions or prohibitions about what to say or communicate. Although Grice has presented them in the form of guidelines on how to communicate successfully, I think they are best interpreted as assumptions about utterances, assumptions that we as listeners trust and as speakers exploit. “

Often, the addressee of an utterance can add to the overt and surface meaning of a sentence, presuming that the speaker has obeyed the maxims. These additional meanings, if intended by the speaker, are called conversational implicatures. For example, in exchange

A (to passerby): I’m out of gas.
B: There is a gas station around the corner.

A will assume that B has obeyed the maxim of the relation. However, B’s answer is only relevant to A if the gas station is open; therefore, it has the implicature “The gas station is open”. 

Grice, however, did not assume that all people must constantly follow these maxims. Instead, he found it interesting when these were not respected, that is, despised (the listener being expected to be able to understand the message) or violated (the listener being expected not to realize this). To disregard means that circumstances lead us to think that the speaker is nevertheless obeying the cooperative principle, and the maxims are followed at a deeper level, again producing a conversational implicature. The importance is in what was notsaid. For example, responding “Are you interested in a tennis match?” with “It’s raining” just disrespects the maxim of the relationship on the surface; the reasoning behind this utterance is usually clear to the interlocutor. 

Disrespecting the maxims

It is possible to disregard a maxim and thus convey a meaning other than what is said literally.  Often in conversation, the speaker scoffs at a maxim to produce a negative pragmatic effect, as in the case of sarcasm or irony. It can flout the maxim of quality to tell a clumsy friend who has just fallen flat that his grace is impressive and obviously means the complete opposite. Likewise, disregarding the maxim of quantity can result in ironic underestimation, the maxim of relevance in blame for irrelevant praise, and the maxim of manner in ironic ambiguity. Grice’s maxims are therefore often willfully disregarded by comedians and writers, who may hide the full truth and choose their words for the story’s effect and for the sake of the reader’s experience.

Speakers who deliberately flout maxims usually intend their listener to understand their underlying implicature. In the case of the clumsy friend, he will likely understand that the speaker is not really giving a compliment. So cooperation is still taking place, but no longer on the literal level. When speakers flout a maxim, they still do so in order to express some thought. So Greek maxims have a purpose both when they are followed and when they are disregarded.

violating the maxims

Violating a maxim means that the speaker is either outright lying in violating the quality maxim or is intentionally deceiving in violating another maxim. For example, if in fact there is no gas station on the corner in the above example statement and B is just playing a cruel prank, then B is violating the quality maxim. A speaker who violates the relevance maxim may suggest that some fact is important when it is not; warning a cook that it takes considerable time to heat the oven implies that preheating the oven is useful and should be done, but perhaps the speaker knows that the recipe doesn’t actually involve baking anything. Violating the quantity maximum may involve intentionally including useless detail in an attempt to obscure or distract,


Grice‘s theory is often contested by arguing that cooperative conversation, like most social behavior, is culturally determined and therefore Greek maxims and the cooperative principle do not apply universally because of cultural differences. Keenan (1976) claims, for example, that the Malagasy people follow a completely opposite cooperative principle to achieve conversational cooperation. In their culture, speakers are reluctant to share information and despise the maxim of quantity, avoiding direct questions and responding to incomplete answers, due to the risk of losing prestige by committing to the truth of the information, as well as the fact that having information is a prestige form. To backtrack on this point, Harnish (1976) points out that Grice only claims that his maxims are valid in conversations where the cooperative principle is in effect. Malagasy speakers choose not to cooperate, placing more value on the prestige of information ownership. (It could also be said, in this case, that this is a less cooperative communication system, since less information is shared.)

Some argue that the maxims are vague.  This may explain the criticism that Greek maxims can easily be misinterpreted as a guideline of etiquette, instructing speakers on how to be moral and polite conversationalists. However, the Greek maxims, despite their words, are only intended to describe the commonly accepted traits of successful cooperative communication. [11] Geoffrey Leech introduced the maxims of politeness: tact, generosity, approval, modesty, agreement, and sympathy.

It has also been noted by relevance theorists that conversational implicatures can arise in non-cooperative situations, which cannot be explained in the Grice framework. For example, suppose A and B are planning a vacation in France and A suggests that they visit their old acquaintance Gérard; and, furthermore, that B knows where Gérard lives, and A knows that B knows. The following dialog follows:

A: Where does Gerard live?
B: Somewhere in the south of France.

This is understood by A as B not meaning exactly where Gérard lives, precisely because B does not follow the cooperative principle. 

we hope after reading this article you would understand the concept of definition of cooperative principle.

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