Violating maxims

↵ Back to class homepage

As we've seen before, conversational implicatures happen when a person utters something that, at the surface, appears to be uncooperative, but when we have good reason to assume that the person is being cooperative anyway.

What are some ways a person can appear to be uncooperative? Grice broke down the "Cooperative Principle" into multiple sub-principles, or "maxims". People usually summarize them along the following:

Most of these maxims have their own sub-maxims (e.g., Manner has sub-maxims about stuff like avoiding ambiguity, avoiding hard-to-understand expressions, and being brief—Grice worded this as "Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity)", and like 50 years later I still don't really understand if that was a joke). But the four major categories above are what most pragmaticists focus on.

Flouting a maxim

According to Grice, people make implicatures when they violate one or more maxims in a blatant way, such that it's clear to the listener that they are violating the maxim on purpose and with some sort of communicative intention. Grice calls this flouting a maxim. (Some pragmaticists a distinction between implicatures that are raised by "flouting" a maxim versus implicatures that are raised by "observing" a maxim, but we're glossing over that distinction here because I don't find it especially useful; if you're interested in it, see e.g. Levinson, chapter 3.) For example, imagine that you say you found a hundred-dollar bill on the sidewalk, and then I say, "Yeah, and I'm the queen of England!" This is very obviously false, and so I have flouted the maxim of quality: I said something that I know is false, and I did that blatantly (because I am clearly not the queen of England). If you assume I'm cooperative, then you will search for another way to understand what I just said. You will probably infer that what I really meant was something like "I don't believe what you just said"—and that is a message which does obey the maxims.

How about the maxim of relation? Here's a good example from the TV show BoJack Horseman. In one episode, BoJack and his girlfriend Wanda are talking about an improv troupe BoJack's roommate has joined that appears to be a cult. I've italicized the key part that leads to an implicature:

The implicature that Scientology is a cult arises because BoJack mentioned Scientology in his utterance about cults, and without any other context the reference to Scientology seems to be irrelevant. So a listener who assumes BoJack is being cooperative will assume he's implicating that the reason he learned about cults while he was a Scientologist is because Scientology itself is the cult. (Interestingly, this example also previews a key point that we will see in the next module, that implicatures can be cancelled—in this dialogue BoJack cancels the implicature twice. We can even further assume that the intended implicature of the writers of the show [as opposed to BoJack's own intended implicature in his particular utterance] is that Scientology is indeed a cult.) (There might be a manner implicature here as well; BoJack's saying "a liiiiittle", with extra duration and emphasis, is probably meant to be interpreted as an understatement suggesting that he actually learned a lot. While this might violate some version of the maxim of manner, it's not clear to me whether this is really a conversational implicature or is something else; it might be more like a conventional implicature associated with this sort of sentence structure and tone of voice. We'll learn about the distinction between "conversational implicatures" and "conventional implicatures" in the next module.)

Finally, let's turn to another maxim. Imagine that you ask me, "Where is tomorrow's class?", and I say, "On campus." Here I am obviously violating the maxim of quantity, because I'm giving you less information than what you are probably looking for. You might infer from this that I don't know exactly where on campus the class is. Or you might infer that I don't want to talk to you and I'm telling you to leave me alone. (Note that this also illustrates a nuance mentioned before about the Cooperative Principle: it doesn't mean I'm cooperating in the sense of being nice to you, it just means I am cooperating in the sense of communicating with you. If I say "On campus" just to grumpily give you the brush-off, I'm certainly not cooperating to help you find the class, but I am "cooperating" in that I am trying to communicate something to you.)

This example, incidentally, also illustrates one of the criticisms of Grice's theory: that it still doesn't explain, at least by itself, how we figure out an implicature. The theory can generate many possible implicatures for the same utterance. As we saw in the "Speech acts and their rules" module, it is quite difficult to set up a deterministic set of rules or principles that will always derive the "right" interpretation of an utterance; in reality people use all sorts of information, reasoning, and creative thinking to figure out what is intended (and sometimes they guess wrong, as we can see from the sort of miscommunications that happen in daily life and in comedies).

Another criticism is that it's often not clear which maxim is being violated; sometimes, multiple maxims may be violated at once. For example, if someone asks "How was your date?" and you say "The food was good", this is widely considered to imply that the date was bad, but why? Is it violating the maxim of relation (because your answer doesn't seem to directly answer the question), or the maxim of quantity (because you provided less information than expected—you only mentioned the food, rather than the entire experience)? Likewise, if someone just performed a song and then asks you how you liked it, and you say, "Well, you certainly made a series of sounds, at different pitches, and in a certain order", that probably implicates that you didn't like their singing, but is it a violation of manner (because you're saying things in a weird and wordy way) or a violation of quantity (because you're giving much more detail than necessary)? Ultimately, because of issues like these, many pragmaticists see these maxims as rough guidelines to help give the general idea of Grice's approach, rather than absolute categories that play fixed roles in real communication.

Other ways of violating maxims

People don't always flout maxims in a blatant and obvious way to communicate something. There are also other situations in which people can violate a maxim without causing an implicature. (Thomas, chapter 3, has a detailed overview of these; here I am just giving a few quick examples.)

First of all, people sometimes just lie or mislead. Lying or misleading is not the same as flouting a maxim. When you flout a maxim, you want the listener to know you are flouting a maxim; you want what you are doing to be obvious (like, e.g., "I'm the queen of England"). On the other hand, when you're lying, misleading, or deceiving, you usually don't want the other person to know that you're lying. This is not really "pragmatic" behaviour; in the study of pragmatics, we're really just interested in situations where people take advantage of the maxims in order to communicate some message (e.g., such as when they flout a maxim in order to produce an implicature, as we've seen above, or in situations like the ones discussed below in which the applicability or inapplicability of maxims can explain why people interpret certain utterances in the way that they do); simple lying is not particularly interesting for understanding pragmatics.

Furthermore, there may be situations in which people are not expected to follow certain maxims. This can happen for cultural reasons—for example, in many (perhaps most?) cultural contexts it is considered rude or blunt to talk directly about death, and so people often use euphemisms like "He is no longer with us" rather than just saying "He's dead", but those usually aren't seen as violations of the "manner" or "quantity" maxims; e.g., nobody infers "Well, he must not be dead, because this person just said a long phrase 'he's no longer with us' rather than just saying he's dead". (However, an alternative account here could be that the speaker is following the maxims perfectly; for example, the maxim of quantity says to provide just as much information as is appropriate for the context, and in this cultural context it would be inappropriate to provide more information.) People might also not be expected to follow the maxims if we have specific reason to believe they can't; for example, if someone is speaking with me in French and they know that my French isn't good, they might know that if I say stuff in a weird way I don't necessarily intend to imply anything by that.

Another situation where people aren't expected to follow maxims is if people intentionally opt out of them. Sometimes people may explicitly say things to signal that they're not going to follow some maxim. A great example of this comes from Ken Liu's excellent short story "The Paper Menagerie". In this story, a Chinese woman has married an American man and is now living in a small town in New England. At one point, the family moves to a new neighbourhood, and some ladies from the neighbourhood come over to welcome them. The husband has to go out to deal with some errands, and leaves the neighbour ladies to stay and chat. Before going out, he tells the neighbour ladies, "Make yourselves at home. My wife doesn't speak much English, so don't think she's being rude for not talking to you." Here he is intentionally and explicitly signalling that someone is not going to be able to follow the maxims, and that people thus shouldn't think she's trying to imply anything when she violates certain maxims.

Flouts and cooperation

At this point we can see a key difference between flouts and other kinds of violations. When a person flouts a maxim, they do so intentionally. They do it because they want the listener to notice that they're flouting a maxim, and they want the listener to figure out that they actually mean something different from what they said. In this way, flouts are actually cooperative: it might look like the speaker is not following the maxim, but they actually are, in some non-literal way.

The other kinds of maxim violations we discussed above are not cooperative in that way. If someone violates a maxim because their language ability is too low for them to follow the maxim, or because they simply misunderstood what the conversation is about, then they have not intentionally flouted the maxim in order to convey some message; instead, they have failed to follow the maxim because they were unwilling or unable to. The same is true for lying; if someone says something false just because they want you to believe that thing, they aren't flouting a maxim. In any of these cases, the speaker isn't really following the Cooperative Principle, either because they don't want to (e.g., they want to mislead you) or because they cannot (e.g. they don't have enough language ability to do what is expected in the conversation).

In fact, according to Grice's theory, the Cooperative Principle and the maxims of conversation are universal; in other words, as long as people are being cooperative, they never violate these maxims. A flout, which at first looks like a violation of a maxim, actually is not—while its literal meaning might violate a maxim, its real, intended, pragmatic meaning does not. Consider the "I'm the queen of England!" example above: in this example the speaker says something that is literally false, but the reason they say that is to suggest something else (they are suggesting "I don't believe what you said and I think it's ridiculous—the thing you said is as implausible as my being the queen of England") which is true. So, if we figure out the person's pragmatic meaning, we will see that they actually didn't violate the maxim at all; they only look like they did. Likewise, for example, if you say something apparently unrelated in order to change the topic; if someone asks you how your test went, and you say "Lovely weather today...", then you have said something whose literal meaning is unrelated to the question, but whose implicated pragmatic meaning (something like "let's not talk about that") is related to the question, so you actually have not violated the maxim of relation. According to this explanation, cooperative speakers never violate the maxims (because being cooperative means, by definition, communicating stuff that is true, appropriately informative, relevant to the conversation, etc.), but they just sometimes pretend to violate maxims (i.e., flout maxims) in order to give the listener a nudge to figure out their intended pragmatic meaning.

Video summary

In-class activities

Let's return to the example I gave about saying that a class takes place "On campus". Now let's imagine another context for it. Say we are having a class that has two different meeting places: every other week it meets in a certain classroom on campus (the same room every time; let's say it's room R507), and every week it meets at a lab off-campus. Now you ask me "Where is class next week?" and I tell you, "On campus", it seems like a pretty clear answer: it means class is in room R507.

Why is this interpreted differently than the previous examples? I can think of at least two possible explanations (there may be others as well):

Have students discuss/debate. Does the interpretation of "On campus" as "Room 507" in this example come from an implicature, or from something else?

As we saw in the module, one criticism of the Gricean approach is that it seems to overgenerate implicatures. Let's take a closer look at one case.

When people utter a sentence with some, it is often interpreted as meaning "not all"; e.g., "Some of the students love pragmatics" is often taken to mean "More than zero, but less than all, of the students love pragmatics." (I am greatly oversimplifying here, because we're going to spend multiple modules going more in-depth into this type of implicature. But for now we can understand it in this way.) For the purpose of this discussion, let's imagine that the person uttering the sentence fully knows every student's opinion about pragmatics (maybe they surveyed all the students) andn the listener knows that the speaker knows.

The Gricean explanation for this implicature goes as follows. When I hear you say "Some of the students love pragmatics", I think about what other things you could had said if you believed something different. If you believed that actually all of the students love pragmatics, you could have said "All of the students love pragmatics", and it would have been more accurate and more specific. This is an alternative: something else that you could have said, but didn't. So anyway, it seems like you're flouting the maxim of quantity here: you've given less specific information than you could have. How do I resolve this problem? I assume that maybe you don't believe that all the students love pragmatics, and that's why you didn't say "all". This is [a simplified version of] the chain of logic I might follow to go from hearing "some" to inferring that you really mean not all of the students love pragmatics.

So far this seems reasonable: I think about a more specific or more informative alternative you could have said ("all..."), and then think about why you chose not to say it, and conclude that you mean that more specific claim is not true.

But there is a problem. I could apply the exact same logic to an alternative like "only some". I could think: "Hey, if you meant that some-but-not-all of the students love pragmatics, you could have said 'Only some of the students love pragmatics'. You did not say that. So I guess you don't believe that."

So, it looks like we've got one valid chain of logic that leads me to infer that you mean not all the students love pragmatics, and another equally valid chain of logic that leads me to infer that you mean all of them do. (Again, I am skipping some steps here, and in later modules we will see that they're quite important. But don't worry about that for now.)

In reality, the first implicature seems more common than the second: people do often interpret some as "not all", but not so often as "not 'not all'". Ask students: How can you reconcile this problem? Can you think of an explanation for why one of these implicatures is more robust than the other?

⟵ The Cooperative Principle
Types of implicatures and their diagnostics ⟶

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2022-04-25. CC-BY-4.0.