Gricean Maxims And Their Application In Teaching English Language Essay

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1st Jan 1970 English Language Reference this


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Successful communication is not possible without reading and listening between the lines. Speakers rarely provide fully explicit description of what they mean and the hearers usually have to fill in the missing information. It is often the case that the intended message does not equal the literal meaning of the words used. What knowledge and clues do we use to make the distinction? What thinking processes do we use as we interpret what we hear? What are the rules that govern how language is interpreted and what are the implications for the learning and teaching of English as a foreign language?

The part of general linguistics that deals with the implicit meaning and presumptive reasoning is called pragmatics. Historically, pragmatic theories originated with the philosophical work of C.S. Peirce and R. Carnap, and were further developed by Paul Grice. Pragmatics started as one of the three divisions of semiotics (the study of sign systems): syntax, which investigates the relation of signs to signs, semantics, which investigates the relation of signs to the things referred to, and pragmatics, which studies the relation of signs to their users. [1] Because of its wide subject manner, modern pragmatics has become an interdisciplinary field of study, interacting with philosophy, psychology and sociology of language. Topics in pragmatics such as the background knowledge and attitudes of the conversational participants, the context of the conversation, and conversational rules that can be used and misused to inform, persuade, imply, etc. will be discussed in this paper. The discussion will conclude with a short overview of the role of textbooks and teachers themselves in helping foreign students’ acquire pragmatic competence.

Basic Pragmatic Concepts Defined

In both formal and informal speech, native speakers constantly use various tools and play on words to achieve different communicative effects. For example, an expression such as “Boy, this test was too easy!” when used after an especially challenging exam, conveys sarcasm. It is intended to mean the opposite of what it literally says. Language strategies such as this are not naturally apparent to L2 learners; they are something to be acquired beyond the knowledge of correct grammar and proper sounds. Knowledge of the culture, including personal biases, stereotypes, and transfer of what is normal in our native culture, seem to guide the way in which we interpret what we hear. Such factors as beliefs and attitudes that we keep stored in our minds about what people are typically like and how they behave, are crucial when decisions are made in potentially ambiguous sentences. For example, unless one is familiar with educational conventions in the US, a friendly reminder from an academic advisor, ‘You cannot start writing your thesis too early!’ could be misinterpreted as ‘You should not start writing your thesis early’. Such pragmatic mistake would have very undesirable consequences for the student.

Besides beliefs and attitudes, another major topic in pragmatics is presupposition, which is an assumption in a sentence that does not need to be explicitly stated. The meaning of the sentence is implied because the background information is already known or given by the use of a particular word or sentence structure. For example, “How did he do on the test?” presupposes that you and I both know this person and that he has recently taken a test. An answer to this question can simply be “He passed,” instead of repeating the information that was already implied by the earlier question.

Meaning can also be implied by the setting of when and where the sentence was uttered. English language, as all other languages, has word forms of which the interpretation depends on the physical location of the speaker and the hearer. For example, here and there, this and that, before and after, would be impossible to interpret correctly unless we are aware of their contextual information. Context often determines the meaning of otherwise identical sentences. For example, in these two situations, the sentence “What do you think?” expresses either a genuine question, or an exclamation that does not require a response.

(Context 1) One student to another: “I expect the test to be very difficult. What do you think?”

(Context 2) Student A to student B: “So, how did you do on the test?”

Student B, looking disappointed: “What do you think?”

If there is nothing unusual about the environment or the point in time, a discourse and discourse topic are other common sources of contextual information. Discourse is a series of utterances that are connected together during a conversation, a lecture or some other speech act. Speakers and hearers usually use linguistic clues, such as determiners the/a, to distinguish between previously given and new information. In general, ‘new’ information includes people, objects and ideas that are mentioned for the first time and they become ‘given’ if they are referred to again. This contrast influences interpretation of statements, for example, the two sentences Essay questions will be part of the test. and The essay questions will be part of the test. In the first sentence, the student should expect essay questions about unspecified topics and in the second sentence, certain specific, previously discussed, essay questions will be included and the student knows what to prepare for. Discourse topic is a term that describes what the sentence or conversation is about. As sentences progress, speakers use different tools to mark a change of topic to avoid misinterpretation. In English, there is a strong tendency to use active sentences and it is assumed that the subject phrase is the topic. [2] 

Gricean Maxims

Considering background beliefs, presupposition, context and other pragmatic conventions in discourse have led linguists to develop theories about general conversational rules that lie behind every interaction and interpretation. Paul Grice was the first to introduce the concept of maxims, or expectations that we bring into our conversational behavior. Grice based his argument on the fact that there must be certain agreed cooperation between the conversational participants for communication to be successful. This Cooperative Principle, or recognition of appropriate contribution and common purpose in a discourse, can be summarized in four individual maxims: Quantity, Quality, Relevance, and Manner. [3] 

The four conversational maxims serve as guidelines in any normal interaction and their application ensures that the speaker can convey a message and the hearer can interpret it. The maxim of Quantity states that a person’s contribution should not be less or more informative than appropriate for the situation. For example, in North America, a common informal question of “What’s new?” is not expected to be answered with details of your personal life. The maxim of Quantity would ask for a short and simple answer but also informative enough to not seem dismissive. The maxim of Quality states that a person should not give false information or statements which cannot be based on adequate evidence, without clearly admitting so. However distrustful we have become in our modern society, we can still function only if we assume that people around us generally do not lie. The following maxim is the maxim of Relevance, which states that whatever is said needs to follow the context and the topic of the conversation. For example, if one’s answer to the above question was, “The ABC TV channel hired a new news anchor”, would be considered less than cooperative because it is not related to the implied topic of the question – the person’s news in personal life. Finally, the maxim of Manner requires that our contribution is orderly and not obscure or ambiguous. A naturally flowing discourse involves the understanding and correctly applying all four conversational maxims. An example of an informative, true, relevant and clear answer to the above question would be, “Nothing much, I have been busy with classes.”

There are different responses in regard to the Gricean maxims. Both sides in a conversation can choose to (1) observe them, (2) violate them – resulting in a misunderstanding, (3) opt out of them and make it clear they are doing so, (4) be unable to fulfill them and (5) exploit them and thus indicate their unwillingness to cooperate. [4] A common occurrence in normal speech is when two maxims are in conflict. For example, small talk often does not allow us to adhere to both the maxims of quality and relevance and we choose to say something that is not completely truthful but is necessary to be polite and avoid hurt feelings. Under some circumstances and if a particular effect (irony, sarcasm) is desired, speakers can intentionally break a maxim and in such cases, even the failure to follow the code can in itself carry some meaning, called implicature. This can be very challenging to L2 learners because the listener is then required to make an interpretation on the assumed shared cultural knowledge. For example, Student A: Do you want to grab dinner on Tuesday? Student B: I have a huge test the next day. In this case, student B obviously opted out of the maxim of Relevance, that is, did not give a direct response as a yes or no. However, student A still accepts the answer as cooperative and makes the connection that the student B cannot go to dinner because he or she has to study for the test.

It has been argued that the four conversational maxims developed by Grice may not apply equally in all languages as they do in English. In his linguistic research, Keenan noted that speakers in a native community in Madagascar make conversational contributions intentionally less informative than seemingly required. [5] The reasoning behind this interesting observation has to do with their tendency to protect information, imbedded by a history of foreign invasions. This example shows that the expectations of cooperation vary in degrees relative to culture.

ESL Textbooks and the Role of the Teacher

Mastery of grammar and vocabulary is often not enough for foreign speakers to be able to make decisions about appropriateness of word choices or interpretation of sentences containing implicatures. An argument can be made that this is a result of the fact that the most students learn and most teachers teach through an overly heavy reliance on textbooks. These textbooks are the center around which lessons are organized but more often than not provide very little information on pragmatics. A research exercise performed by Heidi Vellenga, a doctoral candidate in Applied Linguistics at Northern Arizona University, provides some insight about how English textbooks are failing and what an effective teacher can do about it. [6] 

Vellenga analyzed eight textbooks and documented in detail how much and what kind of pragmatic information is offered in each of them. She specifically looked at whether there is an explanation of politeness/appropriacy/usage/register/cultural information when an example of a speech act is used. Additionally, she interviewed teachers to find out how they incorporate, modify and supplement the course texts in terms of pragmatics.

Several interesting observations are noteworthy from the study’s conclusions. Vellenga found that most textbooks, when listing conversation examples, had very little or no discussion about what the contextual variables are, what the formal and informal conversational norms would be in the situation and what are the common and appropriate practices in the target language. [7] One such typical and unhelpful characteristic that Vellenga found in most textbooks was the disproportionate use of speech act examples that are not as frequent in normal speech. Interactions that include threats, complaints and refusing invitations and giving advice are mentioned more than any other situations. This seems counterintuitive and impractical. At the same time, the students are not given an explanation or clues as to the context and usually are given only one option of expressing the particular thought. For example, giving advice is always associated with the modal should, which in actuality, is only one of the possible ways convey suggestion. The natural consequence of using this and similar textbook material is that, “students are provided with a one-to-one correspondence between language forms and functions, they are not able to develop a pragmatic toolbox with which to make choices about language and convey intentional illocutionary force” [8] , which is a key in learning to make pragmatic choices. The textbooks surveyed also did not include much instruction that would help prepare learners to distinguish between what is polite and what would be considered rude. An example of an inadequate handling and context of a speech act was, What? You must be kidding! in one textbook. [9] Although this phrase does express refusal successfully, it is not polite and would result in miscommunication. Although it is expected, it is unlikely that the teacher would point this out in the classroom, and the student is left on their own to take it at face value. Explanation about situational context, tone of voice, optional ways to soften a sentence to sound more polite would be beneficial for the student. The only time Vellenga documented politeness coming up was in the use of different forms for greeting (hi vs. good morning) and the use of different modals in making requests (can vs. may; can vs. could/would). [10] It is clear from her research that textbooks for English as a second language are insufficient at the best in communicating pragmatic information to the students.

While interviewing teachers who used the textbooks that were used in the research, most of them admitted they do not have time or did not know how to raise students’ pragmatic competence. Despite realizing the shortcomings, the textbooks are still the most important tool in the classroom and provide majority of linguistic input in their lessons. All respondents acknowledged that role-play activities and isolated grammar drills do not help students enough to really learn the language usage. Vellenga’s criticism of the textbooks focuses mainly on the type of speech acts that are used and those that are not included, specifically, authentic language samples. “Only through materials that reflect how we really speak, rather than how we think we speak, will language learners receive an accurate account of the rules of speaking in a second or foreign language.” [11] 

The role of the teacher, therefore, is to understand the importance of providing pragmatic information to the students and to supplement the inadequate textbook material. The teacher should strive to equip the L2 learners with skills to identify pragmatic clues that would lead them to decide on appropriate interpretation or use of a sentence. Subjects such as implicatures, conventions, politeness, conversational maxims and the speaker’s options to observe or violate them, should be part of any English curriculum. This teaching approach requires student’s involvement in practice of analyzing conversational situations, discerning their context, background of the different players and their intentions if implicatures are observed and finally, their effect. Rather than relying on the speech act examples which are provided in the textbooks, which are mostly random and the conversational implicatures are too easily overlooked by an inexperienced learner, it is more productive to provide real conversational and authentic language samples. In practical terms, the teacher could use media clips from TV shows or movies to demonstrate real conversations, or the teacher and the students could create conversational situations that have a relevant application and are familiar to the student and thus provide an avenue for practice. The teacher, most of all, should encourage the students to assume the responsibility for their learning and pragmatic understanding, to research and expand their own language use by active experience and participation.


Study of pragmatics is an essential part of linguistics and understanding human communication and the most challenging aspects for foreign students to grasp. Pragmatics is concerned with topics that include presuppositions and implicatures, Gricean maxim theory and many others that were not covered in this paper, such as style, jargon and Leech’s maxims (Tact, Generosity, Modesty, Sympathy and several others). Miscommunications between native and non-native speakers of a language often results from the difference between their pragmatic competences. Therefore, it is a subject of high importance in every English classroom. Although real mastery can only be gained with experience, pragmatic principles should be included in lesson plans together with grammar and vocabulary. By supplementing textbooks with authentic and pragmatically appropriate input, adequate explanation as to the language tools used to either break or conform to Gricean maxims and their implication on politeness, a teacher can be very effective in helping his students become truly proficient to communicate in the target language.

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