Ask Emma Grice

A piece of advice circulating widely on the web:

An entertaining answer, but not what the questioner wanted to know when she asked, “What should I do?”

[I got this image from Chris Ambidge, but you can find it reproduced all over the web, for instance here and here. If the “Ask Emma” newspaper column of relationship advice is real, I can find no evidence of it; there are on-line advice sites called “Ask Emma”, but none that I can find in a newspaper. Some commenters on this image have even suggested that the Emma in the photo is a guy in drag.]

Putting that aside, the Q is “What should I do?” — when faced with a masturbating husband, we understand. That is, we take the question to be as relevant as possible to the preceding context, expressing shock and dismay at his masturbation and asking for advice about their relationship in the face of this practice. But the A takes the question to be construed as narrowly as possible, namely what to do about discovering her husband masturbating in the bathroom. That’s entertaining, but not really cooperative.

Here I’m appealing to a Gricean analysis of the situation, in terms of Paul Grice‘s cooperative principle. From Wikipedia, the principle says

“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.

Listeners and speakers must speak cooperatively and mutually accept one another to be understood in a particular way. The cooperative principle describes how effective communication in conversation is achieved in common social situations.

The cooperative principle can be divided into four maxims, … describing specific rational principles observed by people who obey the cooperative principle; these principles enable effective communication.

The four maxims:

Maxim of Quality
Be Truthful:

Do not say what you believe to be false.
Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Quantity
Quantity of Information:

Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of Relation

Be relevant.

With respect to this maxim, Grice writes, “Though the maxim itself is terse, its formulation conceals a number of problems that exercise me a good deal: questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be, how these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects of conversations are legitimately changed, and so on. I find the treatment of such questions exceedingly difficult, and I hope to revert to them in later work.” (Grice 1989:27)

Maxim of Manner
Be Clear:

Avoid obscurity of expression.
Avoid ambiguity.
Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
Be orderly.

My brief acount of the Ask Emma Q&A above alluded to two of the maxims in the understanding of the Q: Relation and Quantity. But an extended analysis of particular examples frequently invokes several maxims and sub-maxims, as happens when you try to work out what’s going on in this Zits cartoon, posted here:

Elizabeth Traugott, Melissa Carvell, and I spent a considerable time on this one recently in a linguistics of comics project meeting. Several of Grice’s maxims are relevant to the mother’s rhetorical question, the son’s reply, and the father’s comment. Along the way we discussed, among other things, the conventionalization of indirect speech acts (in the mother’s question), style and register (in the son’s reply), hedging and politeness (in the father’s comment), the visual representation of emotional state, the passage of time in this three-panel narrative (brief between the first and the second, longer between the second and third), and the inferring of unseen events from the depicted events.

(Melissa also gave four other Zits strips, among many she might have chosen, a Gricean treatment. Zits is Griceanly rich.)

6 Responses to “Ask Emma Grice”

  1. walt slocombe Says:

    Have you considered the possibility that the snarky answer meant, “You could have worse problems.”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Gricean implicature can come in layers — so while the snarky answer surely doesn’t *mean* ‘You could have worse problems’, it might in the context *convey*, as a consequence of easier implicatures.

  2. Zits relevance « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] she’s looking for. So his answer flouts Grice’s Maxim of Relation (or Relevance), as in this discussion of an earlier Zits. Jeremy is given to evasive […]

  3. The domestic relevance duels « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Zits in which Gricean relevance plays a central […]

  4. Flouting Quantity | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Grice’s maxims, see this posting.) Saying “not two” implicates — conversationally implicates — not two or […]

  5. Rules of conversation | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (Discussion on this blog here.) […]

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