In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Maxims of Conversation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Journals
  • Integrated Theories of Discourse
  • The Maxim of Manner and Linguistic Regularities
  • Presuppositions and Conversational Maxims
  • Applications of Decision Theory and Game Theory to Pragmatics

Linguistics Maxims of Conversation
Benjamin Spector
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0129


One of the central goals of contemporary linguistic pragmatics is to account for how competent language users are able to derive from the linguistic form of an utterance, and the context in which it occurs, the communicative intention of its author. Grice proposes a model of how this interpretative process takes place (Grice 1989, cited under Paul Grice). One of his central ideas is that, when interpreting an utterance of a sentence, one assumes that the speaker has complied with a number of principles ensuring that conversation is a cooperative activity. Such principles Grice calls “maxims of conversation.” Grice mentions four such maxims. According to the maxim of quality, one should not say something unless one believes it is true, based on good evidence. According to the maxim of quantity, a cooperative speaker should provide as much information as needed given the conversation’s goal, and no more information than what is needed. According to the maxim of relation (or relevance), a cooperative speaker should not convey any information that is not relevant in the context of the utterance. Finally, the maxim of manner instructs speakers to express themselves in an orderly way. In order to decode the communicative intention of a speaker (“what is meant”), one draws inferences about the speaker’s state of mind, based on the fact that she used a certain linguistic form that has a certain “literal” meaning (“what is said”), and on the assumption that she observed the maxims of conversation. The notion of “maxims of conversation” is thus the cornerstone of Grice’s approach to linguistic pragmatics. Because the Gricean approach (in a broad sense) remains, to a large extent, the foundation of contemporary work in pragmatics, conversational maxims, or related theoretical notions, have kept a central role in pragmatics ever since, even though the precise nature and content of such “maxims” are under debate. This article lists a number of books, edited collections, and journal articles that, in one way or another, contribute to our understanding of conversational maxims, where the notion of “conversational maxim” is broadly construed so as to include any principle of language use that is hypothesized to play a role in inferential pragmatic interpretation. The relevant literature overlaps with at least three distinct fields: philosophy, linguistics, and psycholinguistics. Some recent works applying decision theory and game theory to pragmatics are also included.

General Overviews

The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains many entries that are relevant to conversational maxims. Grandy and Warner 2006 presents an overview of Grice’s contributions. Davis 2010 is an informed survey regarding the central notion of implicature. Korta and Perry 2011 provides a useful introduction to the recent history of pragmatics and contemporary developments. Pagin 2007 discusses the main aspects of the philosophical literature on the nature of speech acts and the rules of assertion. Besides these Stanford Encyclopedia entries, van Rooij 2011 provides an introduction to the burgeoning field of game-theoretic pragmatics (dates correspond to the most recent revision). Horn 2012, published in a philosophy of language handbook, provides a general historical and conceptual discussion of the notion of implicature.

  • Davis, Wayne. 2010. “Implicature.” In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta.

    This article contains a precise presentation of Grice’s notion of conversational implicature and discusses some of the conceptual difficulties associated with this notion, as well as related developments in neo-Gricean pragmatics and Relevance Theory.

  • Grandy, Richard E., and Richard Warner. 2006. “Paul Grice.” In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta.

    This article contains a good summary of Grice’s intellectual evolution and of his main contributions.

  • Horn, Laurence. 2012. Implicature. In The Routledge companion to philosophy of language. Edited by Gillian Russell and Delia Graff Fara, 53–66. Routledge Philosophy Companions. New York: Routledge.

    This recent paper provides a good introduction to the notion of implicature, as well as an interesting historical perspective (starting from ancient rhetoric) that, among other things, discusses the contribution of some Oxford-based contemporaries of Grice who contributed their own versions of the cooperative principle or the conversational maxims.

  • Korta, Kepa, and John Perry. 2011. “Pragmatics.” In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta.

    A comprehensive presentation of the field of pragmatics since the mid-20th century.

  • Pagin, Peter. 2007. “Assertion.” In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta.

    Section 2.2 on implicature, section 5.4 on “norms of speakers’ intentions,” and section 6 on the relationships among assertion, belief, and knowledge are particularly relevant to understanding the nature of conversational maxims.

  • van Rooij, Robert. 2011. “Optimality-theoretic and game-theoretic approaches to implicature.” In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta.

    This article discusses, among many things, the connection between game theory and conversational implicatures, with a particular emphasis on the so-called division of linguistic labor (which is related to Grice’s maxim of manner) and quantity implicatures.

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