Tales and Grice's Cooperative Principle  

The English language philosopher Paul Grice proposes that in ordinary conversation, speakers and hearers share a cooperative principle. Speakers shape their utterances to be understood by hearers. Grice analyzes cooperation as involving four maxims: quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Speakers give enough and not too much information: quantity. They are genuine and sincere, speaking "truth" or facts: quality. Utterances are relative to the context of the speech: relation. Speakers try to present meaning clearly and concisely, avoiding ambiguity: manner.


Grice's cooperative principle: set of norms expected in conversation. Grice proposes four maxims expected in conversation.

  • quality: speaker tells the truth or provable by adequate evidence
  • quanity: speaker is as informative as required
  • relation: response is relevant to topic of discussion
  • manner: speaker's avoids ambiguity or obscurity, is direct and straightforward
McGowan proposes that Grice's four maxims establish important norms of discourse that different genres and strategies play with. Joke and tall tale tellers play with language. They bend the ordinary structures and assumptions about speech.  

McGowan argues that much joking and tall tale development involve the tellers playing with these four maxims of Grice's cooperative principle. Orville Hicks in a tale of plowing the popcorn field elaborates details about his father and the mule. These realistic details set us up for the tall-tale exaggeration of the weather being so hot that corn started to pop. Orville, in fact, adds one more "realistic" detail: there was so much popcorn, it created a "blizzard." He goes beyond the maxim of quantity; he gives us more than we need to know. All Orville's tall tales also violate quality. He purposely speaks untruths, yet he gives seemingly factual details. He plays with relation often, creating crazily logical connections. Grice's final maxim, manner, demands that conversation be unambiguous, but Orville's tall tales bend the meanings of words for humor; he plays with words and images. Orville Hicks plays with these four maxims of the cooperative principle in his performances. Often the appropriate incongruity of humor in such tales depends on the violation or tampering with the four maxims of Grice's cooperative principle: quanity, quality, relation, and manner.


Linguists describe the property of human language that allows lying, talking about hypothetical situations, fiction, language play, and talking about language itself displacement. Some linguists argue displacement is a main difference between human and animal language. Displacement certainly operates in important ways in tale telling.






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