When we communicate with others, we subconsciously (or maybe consciously for some people) think and evaluate what we’re saying for it to make sense and be delivered effectively. Many linguistic theorists and anthropologists have come up with their own reasoning about it and provided some interesting research. Some concepts include language games, activity-type inferences and so forth (which you can hear more about here). There is one that is very well-known in this world and that is Paul Grice’s Maxims.
Paul Grice was a British philosopher of language. He had many interesting theories and concepts but one of the most well-known ones was his maxims. These maxims cover the communication between the speaker and the listener (there could be multiple listeners) and how the speaker effectively provides information to the listener(s). What I’ll be explaining only really covers the basics so that you can get a taste of it and be interested to do your own little bit of research (hopefully!).
Ultimately, there are four maxims:
Now, let’s go a bit deeper here.
When we say the maxim of quantity, we’re talking about how informative the talk is and if the amount of information is not too little or too much. For example, I tend to flout (disregard) this maxim a lot in my day-to-day life because I get too excited about whatever I want to talk about and I just go on and on and on about it when it could be said in fewer words. The risk of this is that what I am trying to communicate can get lost in everything I’m saying and the listener become confused.
Imagine asking where a shop is and someone telling you the location of is as ‘It is west from here’. That probably won’t help but is nonetheless informative. Switch that around the other extreme and you could get someone telling you ‘It’s down this street, then you make a right at the orange shop that sells cookies here, and then you turn left down the next street, which you will know by the beautifully fluorescent vending machine on the corner’. All in all, for the most effective communication, all you need to do is provide as much information as is needed.
Then, we have the maxim of quality. This looks into the truthfulness of what a person is saying. This isn’t just about blatantly lying. It also includes when people communicate about topic they don’t know much about. For example, I try my best in telling all of you about these linguistic theories but I am hampered slightly by the fact I haven’t done years of research on the topics specifically. Therefore, I can communicate what I know but not much else.
So, in my case, I can’t go into the specific scientific formulas surrounding these theories. If I tried to give you a summarised explanation of it, I’d be going only on assumption. This would flout this maxim because it won’t be truthful nor supported by evidence. However, I can provide you the information that I do know and be done with it, then I’d like to think I haven’t flouted this maxim (to all the qualified linguists out there, I’m sorry if I have!).
Third on the list we’ve got the maxim of relation. This is another maxim I tend to flout a lot. It’s all about the relevance of the talk and that was is spoken actually contributes to the conversation rather than hampers it. For example, there could be a conversation about sport occurring. If someone were to go to contribute but talk about a different sport or argue a different point that isn’t in relation to what the conversation is about, then people will get lost and there will be confusion.
It also looks at if one person is doing all the speaking and whether all they have to say is relevant to the whole picture. I, for one, tend to go on little tangents in my stories (to the joy of my friends and family) and even I get lost and forget what the main point is. It would be the same if a journalism tutor is going on about investigative journalism but starts talking about a physics theory that doesn’t have anything to do with investigative journalism but they were reminded of it in that moment.
Last, but not least, there’s the maxim of manner. I have probably flouted this in this piece of writing, but essentially this maxim is about how clear the message is. It also targets how orderly and brief the communication is and that it avoids being obscure or ambiguous. This is where you hear your teachers in the back of your mind telling you to be concise and straight to the point. When this maxim is flouted, it basically means that what is spoken can be interpreted in many ways, and therefore the main point is lost.
You can probably gather from what I’ve written that these maxims have the potential to overlap with one another. This is definitely true. All maxims are always in action when there is communication happening. However, that doesn’t mean that when one is flouted the whole conversation is strained. For example, a person who is in need of a piece of information might only receive that through a long-winded explanation. This would mean that the maxims of manner and quantity are flouted but the listener receives all the information they need or want.
It’s all rather interesting (or at least it is for me!). There are so many things at work within us that we don’t even know about that make sure we understand everything happening around us and that we can communicate effectively ourselves.
The more you learn about these linguistic theories and concepts, the more you realise just how talented we all are. Human beings are astoundingly amazing at what we are capable in doing, and the most incredible part about it is that most of it is all subconscious. We perform these amazing tasks without even realising it!
I am aware I probably flouted each and every one of the maxims in trying to explain them. Nonetheless, I hope you feel inspired and maybe more confident in yourself knowing how amazing you are and what you are capable of.
Take this and ignite the story within yourself!
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.