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Cooperative principle


In social science generally and linguistics specifically, the cooperative principle describes how effective communication in conversation is achieved in common social situations, that is, how listeners and speakers must act cooperatively and mutually accept one another to be understood in a particular way. As phrased by Paul Grice, who introduced it, "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." Though phrased as a prescriptive command, the principle is intended as a description of how people normally behave in conversation. Jeffries and McIntyre describe Grice's maxims as "encapsulating the assumptions that we prototypically hold when we engage in conversation".

The cooperative principle can be divided into four maxims, called the Gricean maxims, describing specific rational principles observed by people who obey the cooperative principle; these principles enable effective communication. Grice proposed four conversational maxims that arise from the pragmatics of natural language. Applying the Gricean maxims is a way to explain the link between utterances and what is understood from them.

Those who obey the cooperative principle in their language use will make sure that what they say in a conversation furthers the purpose of that conversation. Obviously, the requirements of different types of conversations will be different.

The cooperative principle goes both ways: speakers (generally) observe the cooperative principle, and listeners (generally) assume that speakers are observing it. This allows for the possibility of implicatures, which are meanings that are not explicitly conveyed in what is said, but that can nonetheless be inferred. For example, if Alice points out that Bill is not present, and Carol replies that Bill has a cold, then there is an implicature that the cold is the reason, or at least a possible reason, for Bill's absence; this is because Carol's comment is not cooperative—does not contribute to the conversation—unless her point is that Bill's cold is or might be the reason for his absence. (This is covered specifically by the maxim of relation.)

Supermaxim:

Submaxims:



  • Try to make your contribution one that is true.
  • Be relevant.
  • Be perspicuous.
  • Cameron, D. (2001). Working with Spoken Discourse. London: Sage Publications.
  • Mey, Jacob. 2001. Pragmatics: An Introduction, page 76–77. Blackwell.
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald. 2006. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Blackwell.
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