I wonder if anybody here is a pragmatics expert because my question relates to this. I'm learning about Paul Grice's conversational maxims (quality, quantity, relation and manner) and I have a difficulty to realize what maxim was flouted in this conversation:

A: What's on television?

B: Nothing.

I would be grateful I anyone here can help because I couldn't find an appropriate forum to post this question. Sorry if I posted this in wrong place.

  • 2
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not really about English.
    – Robusto
    May 31 '15 at 22:24
  • 1
    Who says the response Nothing violates Grice? It obviously doesn't unless you're speaking to an autistic person who might assume the TV set doesn't work or the transmission service isn't operating. To anyone else, it's a normal way of saying There's nothing of interest [to the conversants] being broadcast on TV at the moment. May 31 '15 at 22:37
  • 2
    Shouldn't those of you who haven't the foggiest idea what Gricean analysis is be a little more cautious with your comments? And @F.E. should understand that the pragmatics of English is not identical with that of other languages.
    – Greg Lee
    May 31 '15 at 23:59
  • 1
    @GregLee Hey, I think a question on pragmatics ought to be welcome on a grammar site, er, I meant, on EL&U. :) . . . I'm serious here. The reason I made the earlier comment was to help the OP find a site where they might get some (more) related info. I see nothing wrong with the OP's question, and I think that it ought to be appropriate for EL&U. That is, I think the question should be kept open. (Though, I probably should have worded my earlier comment more accurately.)
    – F.E.
    Jun 1 '15 at 3:41
  • 1
    I believe the underlying issue here is the difference between the interests of language teachers and editors, on the one hand, and linguistic analysis, on the other. Chomsky discussed it in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. The last interest of pedagogy is the study of what is shared among all language speakers, since people don't ordinarily need help with it, or correction, but that is the first interest of linguists.
    – Greg Lee
    Jun 2 '15 at 16:03

Since something is always on TV (even if nothing worthwhile), the reply is literally false, so it flouts the

Maxim of Quality
Try to make your contribution one that is true

(Excerpted from Wikipedia -- Cooperative principle.)

  • 2
    It's almost certainly a reduced form of 'Nothing [that I consider] worth watching', and as such is perfectly well understood, idiomatic, and acceptable.
    – Edwin Ashworth
    May 31 '15 at 22:17
  • The correct (AmE) answer is "reruns of Seinfeld".
    – TRomano
    May 31 '15 at 23:32
  • 4
    @EdwinAshworth, what you say is so. Flouting an axiom is not supposed to produce unacceptable expressions -- it's done all the time in ordinary conversation. Rather, it is just a signal that the intended meaning goes beyond what is said overtly. In the example, the flouted axiom tells you that you have to interpret "nothing" to mean "nothing worthwhile". That's the point of the Gricean analysis here.
    – Greg Lee
    May 31 '15 at 23:49
  • @EdwinAshworth You can still understand people even when they're violating maxim(s) through conversational implicature. What you mentione here is the implicature. Actually, we tend to violate these maxims in our daily life.
    – Lans Tran
    Jun 1 '15 at 4:03
  • I've reversed the downvote I feel is necessary; it's more appropriate awarded to Gricean analysis.
    – Edwin Ashworth
    Jun 2 '15 at 16:23

The problem with using Grice to interpret actual discourse as if we could easily map each item exactly onto one of those maxims is that it's going beyond the original intention. Grice did not base it on extensive analysis of a corpus of conversation but rather in response to very specific problems with the traditional truth-conditional or more generally formalist logical semantics, namely those of logical inference. His point was that his theory of implicature can rescue seemingly divergent statements from being outside the realm of traditional logical inference.

As a result, in practice, we can find several maxims violated with analysts rarely in agreement as to which one is the most likely culprit. However, this never matters because these are not 'real' maxims that actually empirically govern human conversations. However, they very nicely delineate the realm in which speakers background knowledge is used to make sense of discourse.

This brief discourse could simultaneously be said to violate:

  1. No maxim at all. The conversation was fully informative for both parties (as I have witnessed in real life many times).

  2. Maxim of quality. To help identify the hyperbole.

  3. Maxim of quantity. To account for the fact, that while the first speaker's hyperbole is understood, they are likely interested in more information to make their own decision.

  4. Maxim of relation - depending on the relationship of the two interlocutors. A parent may be less happy with this answer form a child than a partner with whom this may be an established conversational pattern.

  5. Maxim of manner. If the context does not make it clear whether this is a hyperbole or a literal statement.

Which one of these I choose depends on background knowledge as well as what sort of thing I'm trying to analyze about the conversation. Am I trying to look at traditional truth-conditional values of each conversation? Then most likely, 2 is the answer I will find more useful. Am I trying to analyze presupposition or power relations? The it will be one of the others. The one downside of Grice's maxim's is that often what is useful about them is lost in pointless quarreling about irrelevant minutia.

  • Agreed, though I think the maxim mainly flouted here is that of quantity as the questioner clearly wants information about 'what is on tv' but is being given no information except the respondent's opinion (elliptical nothing of interest) of what is on (it being unlikely that the 'nothing' is meant in the most literal sense). Jun 5 '15 at 0:48

The analysis Grice suggested has grave shortcomings, as explained in the article On Grice's Theory of Conversation: Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber.

There is the nonsense that

His mother is an angel.

is considered to be a violation of the maxim of truthfulness, whereas the negation of this

His mother is no angel.

is not. And if 'angel' is substituted by a synonym, 'saint' or 'good person', here, the analysis suggested by Grice does not remain the same. The relevant definitions have to be scrutinised, and someone has to decide when a metaphor becomes dead (and hence a metaphorical usage now has to be regarded as literal).

From Grice's decision to say that all figurative statements (in particular metaphor, antiphrasis, meiosis and hyperbole) violate the maxim 'Do not say what you believe to be false', it must be true that Greg Lee's answer is correct. However, a pragmatic 'Do not seek to mislead' might be a better starting point. Combining his maxim with labelling metaphor etc 'false statements' leads logically to 'Do not use metaphors ...' (or, as here, idiomatic short forms which have alternative readings in other contexts) which is ridiculous.

Gricean maxims were a good initial model, but should be realised to be inadequate as prescriptions (and they are given in the form of a set of rules).

  • Maybe the Grice maxims would be inadequate as prescriptions, but they're not taken as prescriptions. They describe social conventions that we need to know about to describe implicit meanings of language expressions in use. The idea is not to deny the figurative, but to describe it.
    – Greg Lee
    Jun 2 '15 at 20:40
  • In that case, the way they are stated is a violation of the maxim of manner.
    – Edwin Ashworth
    Jun 2 '15 at 21:50
  • +1 Useful link too, thanks. Jun 9 '15 at 12:31

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