How to Use Grice’s Maxims To Communicate Better in Plain English

Written by Lauren Carter | Last updated:

Remember when you were at school and you’d ask the teacher “Can I please go to the toilet?” and they would respond “I don’t know . . . CAN you?”. After giving the biggest teenage eye roll, you’d respond “MAY I please go to the toilet?” and they’d say “Yes, you may”. I have a foggy memory of this happening to me in high school, but to tell you the truth I’m not even sure it actually happened anymore! Maybe it’s one of those false memories. . .

Anyway, apart from the teacher trying to be funny, the reason this exchange happened is because the teacher didn’t obey Grice’s maximum of relevance. No idea what I mean when I say that? No worries, you’ll understand all about Grice’s maxims by the end of this post.

What are Grice’s maxims?

Grice’s maxims are part of a linguistic theory called the cooperative principle. This principle was created by a British linguist called Paul Grice, and it describes how speakers and listeners work together to achieve effective communication. Grice divided this principle into four parts, which are called Grice’s maxims or Gricean maxims.

There are four maxims. Here’s an overview of what they mean:

Maxim of Quantity

We should only say what’s required according to the context. We also shouldn’t say more or less than we need to.

Maxim of Quality

We should tell the truth and shouldn’t say things we lack evidence for. If we’re even a tiny bit unsure whether something is truthful or not, then we should make it clear that we’re not sure.

Maxim of Relevance

We should only say relevant things and leave out anything that isn’t relevant or appropriate for the current context.

Maxim of Manner

We should be clear, brief, and logical in our communication. We should also avoid vagueness and ambiguity.

How do Grice’s maxims relate to plain English?

So, how does all of this relate to plain English? Well, keeping these maxims in mind helps us to communicate effectively with our target audience. And what’s the goal of plain English communication? To do just that!

I’m sure Grice didn’t know it at the time, but he created a great plain English instruction manual for us to use! We can simply use these maxims and apply them to our own communication to plain Englishify it. (Man, why isn’t that a real word? I suppose a word becomes a “real” word if we keep using it, right? ?)

What happens if I don’t follow Grice’s maxims?

An important part to remember about these maxims though is that we don’t need to follow them if we don’t want to. We can accidentally disregard them if we’re not aware of our communication, or we can intentionally disregard them for other purposes. We’re adults and we can do whatever we want! ?

These maxims are merely tools to help us communicate effectively. When we disregard these maxims, there aren’t any language nerds driving around in cars labelled “Language Police”! But that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for disregarding these rules.

We all know that one person whose conversations go like this:

  • Me: What did you get up to on the weekend?
  • Expected response: Not much. The kids had soccer on Saturday morning and then we pottered around outside on Sunday afternoon because the weather was beautiful, but nothing else, really. What about you?
  • Actual response: Well, I woke up on Saturday morning and had pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast. But not that fake maple syrup — I’m talking about real Canadian maple syrup. Gosh, isn’t it frustrating that fake maple syrup even exists? Maybe it should be called fakle syrup —you know, because it’s a combination of fake and maple. Ha! I’m hilarious! So anyway, I went for a walk with my dog after that and we went to the park near the street where all those houses are being built. And then we went to soccer with the kids and I tell you what they shouldn’t let some of those kids play. Like, I know that it’s supposed to be all about participation and what not, but yikes! Some of them shouldn’t be allowed to play with their sub-par skills.

And it goes on and on until we pretend to hear someone calling our name to escape the pain. ?

In summary, this is what can happen when you don’t follow Grice’s maxims:

  • Quantity: Your audience wastes time because you go off on long tangents or don’t provide enough information.
  • Quality: Your audience loses trust in you when they find out the information you gave them wasn’t true.
  • Relevance: Your audience is bored because you’re talking about things they don’t care about.
  • Manner: Your audience is confused because your information is vague, ambiguous, illogical, and unclear.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t want my audience to waste time, lose trust, be bored, or be confused. So, what to do about that?

How can I use Grice’s maxims to communicate better in plain English?

Like I said above, Grice inadvertently created a plain English playbook for us to use to communicate effectively with our audience. Follow the recommendations below and you’ll be well on your way to better communication!

Be concise (maxim of quantity)

Ask yourself if it’s really necessary to include X and whether your audience would benefit from including it. Likewise, ask yourself if your audience has all the required information they need to understand your message. Will they understand all the terminology? Is there anything that needs to be explained more?

Tell the truth (maxim of quality)

Make sure all your information comes from authentic and genuine sources. If you’re not 100% sure whether something is true or not, then either don’t say it or make it clear that you have doubts about its authenticity.

Stay relevant (maxim of relevance, duh!)

Ask yourself whether your audience will need to know about X or whether you’re doing it for your own benefit. Do they care about X or are you adding it in because you think you “should”? Are you trying to prove your intelligence or worth by adding X in even though it’s not super relevant to your audience?

Be clear, logical, and to the point (maxim of manner)

Ask yourself whether there’s an easier way to say X and whether your audience will understand it. Is your communication logical? Does it flow easily from one point to the next or is it difficult to follow? Is there more than one way to interpret your message?