Week 8


Cooperative principle & Politeness Principle

So far we have concentrated on the meaning of language as a product of the meaning of words. There are however other aspects of meaning which are not derived solely from the meaning of words used in phrases and sentences.

When we read or hear pieces of language, we normally try to understand not only what the words mean, but what the writer or speaker of those words intends to convey (to say). The study of intended speaker meaning is called pragmatics.

Example: Fall baby sale (in store window)

Meaning needs also context.

To fully understand the meaning of a sentence, we must understand the context in which it is uttered. Pragmatics concerns itself with how people use language in a particular way. How people use language within a context and why they use language in particular ways. Factors such as time, place and social relationships between speaker and hearer affect the ways in which language is used to perform various functions.

Context is divided into four parts:

  1. Physical (objects, where the communication takes place, what is present, what actors take place.
  2. Epistemic: knowledge background shared by speaker and hearer.
  3. Linguistic: utterances previous to the utterances under consideration.
  4. Social context: social relationship between the speaker hearer and setting.

Example: Two people talking loudly walk into a silent study section of the library (physical context), they sit down still talking loudly, but no one says anything to them. After a few minutes, across the table from them someone says “talk a little louder, won’t you. I missed what you just said!”

1.The Cooperative Principle

H.P Grice (1971, 1975) introduced what is known as the Cooperative Principle. He says that for communication to be successful and free from ambiguity, people (interlocutors) should follow a set of maxims, which he claims are universal (applicable in all languages and cultures).

-The maxim of Quantity:

1. Make your contribution as informative as required.

2. Do not make your contribution more informative than required.

-The maxim of Quality:

1. Do not say what you believe to be false.

2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

-The maxim of Relation:

Make your contribution relevant.

-The maxim of Manner:

1. Avoid obscurity.

2. Avoid ambiguity.

3. Be brief.

4. Be orderly.

Task 1

What maxims are violated?

1. Son: where are the cornflakes?

     Mother: they’re in the cupboard.

2. Traffic warden: Is this your car, sir?

     Motorist: I think it’s going to rain.

3. Mother: Now tell me the truth. Who put the cat in the bathtub?

    Son: Someone put it.

4. Sara how is 6 years old stayed with her parents’ friends. These people were lover of books. Somehow while Sara was playing, her little bouncing ball managed to get itself behind a row of books on one of the lower shelves.

Sara: Have you seen my ball?

Mother: Why don’t you look behind Volume 6 of Dostoyevski’s Collected Works?

5. A child walks into the kitchen and takes some popcorn

Father: I thought you were practicing your violin

Son: I need to get the [violin] stand

Father: Is it under the popcorn?

2.The Politeness principle:

One of the criticisms aimed at the maxims is that they can be interpreted as a moral code of behavior. “How to be a good conversationalist) = virtuous, obedient, moralistic, ideal, etc

In fact, in our everyday language, Grice’s maxims are flouted by people for several reasons. One of the reasons is Politeness.

Example:         A: Do you like my new hairstyle?

                        B: Well…it’s very different, isn’t it?

Grice explains that departures from the maxims necessitate a degree of interpretation. He calls it “conversational  implicature”.

Instead of consistently observing the maxims, the speaker may flout the maxims and thus imply something totally different from what they actually say. Thus, the addressee is forced to interpret the speaker’s words in order to understand the intended meaning.

– Geoffrey Leech (1983) introduced the idea of the politeness principle in conversation. He says that some illocutions are inherently impolite (e.g. orders), and others are inherently polite (offers).

According to Leech, the aim of the politeness principle is to minimize the impoliteness of impolite illocutions and maximize the politeness of the polite illocutions.

Example: parent : Someone’s eaten the icing off the cake.

                Child: it wasn’t me.

– Along with the politeness principle, Leech adds the irony principle within the frame of interpersonal rhetoric. Leech regards the latter as a second-order principle which allows the speaker to be impolite while seeming to be polite; irony results from superficial violation of the cooperative principle. The irony principle conflicts with the politeness principle, though it enables the hearer to reach the point of the utterance by way of implicature.

– Drawing on Goffman, Brown and Levinson (1987) use the concept of face to explain politeness. According to Brown and Levinson, “face is something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained, or enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interaction”. They distinguished between two types of face:

  1. Positive face is the desire to be liked, appreciated, approved, etc.
  2. Negative face is the desire not to be imposed upon, intruded, or otherwise put upon.

– According to Brown and Levinson, certain face threatening acts (FTA) inherently threaten the face needs of one or both discourse participants. FTAs are unavoidable and as such Brown and Levinson identify four strategies to redress the threatening nature of FTAs.

  1. Do the FTA baldly on the record (i.e., directly).
  2. Do the FTA on the record with redress.
  3. Do the FTA off the record (i.e., indirectly)
  4. Don’t do the FTA.

To illustrate the four strategies, imagine you friend just had a new haircut which you did not like. She asked you what you thought of her haircut. What do you say?

  1. Bald on the record: “That’s an awful haircut”
  2. On the record with redress: “The haircut is not good, but you are smile is divine”
  3. Off the record: “It looks different”
  4. Do not do the FTA: “It’s great”


a. “Isn’t it cold in here?”

b. “Shut the window, Sam.”

c. “I’m sorry. Could you do me a favor and shut the window?”

d. “You look cold, Sam. Should we shut the window?”

e. “Say nothing and keep on freezing.”

1. Positive Politeness

2. Going on record

3. Don’t do the FTA

4. Off record (hint)

5. Negative Politeness