Quick Summary:

When we talk with people, we usually like to think we're being logical. We want to be getting across our meanings clearly. But it turns out that when we're engaging in conversation, we do a lot of things that aren't really controlled by logic. Instead, we all play by the same set of rules, and we know from there what to expect from what people are saying.

These rules are contained within Paul Grice's Cooperative Principle, and they're known as the Conversational Maxims. There are four of these maxims to follow: Quality, Manner, Relevance, and Quantity. Each of them has their own role to play in guiding our conversations, to make sure we tell the truth, stay relevant, and provide the right kinds and amounts of information. They're in every language of the world, and while you can break them, it tends not to make you look very nice.



We started talking in the video about sentences like "Dominic sang some of the songs at karaoke." According to the Maxim of Quantity, the fact that we used some here, and not all, should mean that the person talking thinks Dominic didn't sing all of the songs, or even most of them. That's because if I meant the stronger term, I should have used it - if Dominic did sing everything, why am I just saying some?

This sort of implicature, or additional info beyond what's actually, literally in the sentence, is known as a scalar implicature, because words like some and all exist on a scale of how strong or how informative they are. Here are some other scales of this sort.

  • {some, most, all}
  • {warm, hot}
  • {rarely, never}

So that means that if your friend says "I rarely get a chance to travel," and it turns out that they've never left the city they live in once in their life, you'll feel like they were wrong - they should have used the stronger one. In fact, it's even stronger than this: people don't just think that you said something kind of weird, but ultimately okay. Using the wrong word from the scale will actually make people actually think that you lied to them about it. In other words, people will judge things that are technically just an inappropriate thing to say, and say they're actually totally false. That's the cost of breaking the rules.

But sometimes, people behave pretty weirdly around these. Let's take a sentence like "Some elephants have trunks." Now, technically, this is a really weird sentence to say, since all elephants have trunks. So it should come across as not strong enough, and thus a problem. So people shouldn't like this sentence. And yet, most adult native speakers of English will accept this sentence as being true. And not just for English - Korean speakers do this, too.

So why is this? There are a number of different hypotheses about this, but the one we here at the Ling Space like the best says that maybe we try to come up with a way to make that sentence actually be okay. Because we really want the people we're talking with to be nice and cooperative! So we figure, well, that was a weird thing for them to say. But maybe the person saying "Some elephants has trunks" is including poor injured elephant who have lost their trunks. And so, it's not true that it's all elephants who have trunks; some of them don't, so saying "some elephants" is okay.

That's a lot of gymnastics to do to get our rules to work, but that's how much we like people to be cooperative and follow along. Two extra stages to plot through is a small price to pay to keep everyone safe and well-behaved.



So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about the Conversational Maxims and how we can get through a conversation intact. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and so we want to hear what interests you!


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