English Language Day and Gricean Maxims

A pause to reflect on linguistics and digital communications

April 23rd is English Language Day at the United Nations. It’s also the birthday of William Shakespeare. In 2010, the Department of Public Information established a day to celebrate for each of the six official languages.

Paul Grice (1913-1988) was a British Philosopher of Language and published work on the nature of meaning and developed a theory of implicature – the meaning implied in what is uttered.

Grice developed his ideas around a cooperative principle and a set of maxims to govern and describe human interaction. “Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” As Wikipedia notes, 

Maxim of Quantity: Information

  • Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange.
  • Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of Quality: Truth

  • Do not say what you believe to be false.
  • Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Relation: Relevance

  • Be relevant.
  • Maxim of Manner: Clarity ("be perspicuous")
  • Avoid obscurity of expression.
  • Avoid ambiguity.
  • Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  • Be orderly.

Grice follows his summary of the maxims by suggesting that "one might need others", and goes on to say that "There are, of course, all sorts of other maxims (aesthetic, social, or moral in character), such as "Be polite", that are also normally observed by participants in exchanges, and these may also generate nonconventional implicatures.

As we think about the influence of technology on communication and human interaction, it’s important to pause and reflect on English Language Day – to think about the Grice Maxims and what they mean in this digital world.

Today, managers communicate with employees digitally, perhaps through text message, cell phone, and email. In some cases, manager and employee may not meet in person more than a couple times a year. This is why it’s critical to understand Grice’s Maxium. People are busy, overloaded with information coming at them from a wide array of sources. Your message must be relevant, direct and non-ambiguous, the right length and of high quality if you are able to break through all the noise and get your message heard.

The same is true in meetings. Information in meetings flows at tremendous rates, often simultaneously. Keeping a meeting on track requires strong communication skills and these maxims are important to keep in mind when running an effective meeting.

Call to Action

Take some time to reflect upon a recent meeting or text/chat/Skype conversation and assess your performance in the context of Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Manner.

Improve your ability to recognize implicatures when you hear them – call them out, if you feel compelled.

Using Grice’s Maxims, analyze how you communicate differently based on the communication tools – Skype versus phone versus in-person versus email version Facebook versus IM/SMS

If you are a manager, consider these Maxims when speaking with your employees, and as an employee, consider how you can use these to improve the effectiveness of your conversations with your manager and peers.





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