BONUS: In Language, Context Is King

Successful communication is often about supplying enough information, but not too much.


The late philosopher Paul Grice formulated four brief maxims by which conversations are generally governed. Most humans find it relatively easy to observe them. Machines, on the other hand, not as much.

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JOHN McWHORTER: So what we learned about today with the irony was, in broader perspective, about maxims. It's the maxims created by the philosopher of language Paul Grice — we linguists call them the Gricean maxims — and what the maxims are about are certain underlying assumptions that we make about conversation, about how we use language. These things are unspoken — nobody would teach them — but they are yet another way that we can see that speaking is not just about describing things and giving orders and asking questions. It's more than that; social interaction is weirder and richer than that.

So with irony, what goes on is that you are breaking one of the maxims, and it's called the Maxim of Quality. The Maxim of Quality is an unspoken agreement that we make as people to, when we are communicating, tell the truth. The idea is that the default assumption is that we are calling upon somebody's attention in order to tell them something that is true. If you flout, as we say, the Maxim of Quality, it means that you don't tell the truth. Irony is all about flirting with, flouting, the Maxim of Quality. So “very funny” when it wasn't very funny. You flout the Maxim of Quality in order to communicate something, but the idea is that you broke this maxim.

Now there are other maxims. The nice thing is that there aren't like 34. It's one of those things where you would imagine that Grice would have become one of these people to whom he has a hammer, and therefore everything is a nail. No, there aren't that many. There are only four. But another one — and one you end up thinking about after you think about the Maxim of Quality — is the Maxim of Quantity. What's the Maxim of Quantity? That is an underlying agreement that when somebody asks us for information, we tell them enough — not too much, and especially not too little. There's an agreement that we're actually going to give what the person was asking.

And so let's say you have two children and somebody asks, “Do you have one child?” You're not supposed to answer “yes,” knowing that you actually have two because of course, it is true in the strict sense that you have one child. If you have two, you have two “one childs.” Yes. But if somebody says, “Do you have a child?” and you have two, you don’t just say “yes”; you say “Yes. As a matter of fact, I have two children.” That is, if you were going to fulfill the Maxim of Quantity.

This reminds me of an anecdote somebody told me about being very far away and they were in a restaurant, and it had been a long day, and they asked, “Well,” [to] the waiter, “you have Kingfisher beer?” and the waiter says, “No, sir, we don't have Kingfisher beer.” So then he asked, “Well, do you have Sierra Nevada?” “No, sir. We don't have Sierra Nevada beer.” “Do you have an Amstel light?” “Sir, I'm sorry. We don't have Amstel Light.” “Wait a minute. Do you sell beer at all?” “No, sir. We don't sell beer.”

That's not the way it's supposed to go. If somebody says, “Do you have Kingfisher beer,” you don't say, “No, we don't sell Kingfisher” knowing that you don't sell any beer at all. That's underselling it. You are flouting the Maxim of Quantity. It's not quite the thing that one does.

And you know, there are two more of these maxims, and they're all about what it really is to talk. And this is the sort of thing that makes artificial intelligence hard, because how does the machine know that if it's asked, “Do you have one child?” — when its truth condition is that it has two children — that the answer is not “Yes, I have one child.” A machine is relatively easy to teach to answer a basic question, but how do you make the machine understand context? That is one of the massive challenges. And for reasons like this, actually, as the maxims go, quantity is the hardest one.

There's an interesting study that was done recently by Mako Okanda, Kosuke Asada, Yusuke Moriguchi and Shoji Itakura — I am not going to pretend that those four names were not lots of fun for Anglophone me to say — but they did a study where they show that in terms of these maxims, quantity comes in the latest. Some forms of flouting quantity and understanding that that's what happened and that that's how language goes, people don't get until they are about six. This was done with Japanese kids. And so not until about six are you fully getting that.

And if you think about it, that's about right. It's around six when your kids are understanding language completely in that contextual sense, where, within reason, you can use irony, etc. That is certainly the case with my two children. But that means that language is partly about maxims. We are in a Maxim House.

Maxwell House Coffee! Remember the old commercials?

Commercial Announcer: Mmm, smell good ground coffee!

Where they used to somehow get across that Maxwell House is better than other coffee because it's good to the last drop? What did that mean? You know, what are the coffees where: Well, these are some of the last drops and it's not very good ‘cuz these are the last drops, and for whatever reason that would be — backwash or something like that — how is that different with Maxwell House? And of course, Maxwell House is not what most of us would consider good coffee. But here, just to close it out, this is an early 50s TV commercial. And it's about how Maxwell House is good to the last *whoop!* drop. That's the way they used to do it on the radio.

Commercial Announcer: Pour a cup of this good smelling coffee. It will taste as good as it smells because it's good ground Maxwell House. Maxwell House Coffee is good to the last drop. Enjoy the rich, fresh taste of Maxwell House Coffee: The ground coffee that tastes as good as it smells every time. Maxwell House.


This bonus segment has been about maxim house, but it got me thinking about coffee, although I, of course, drink better coffee than Maxwell House.

If you'd like to leave a comment or check out our other great podcasts, Banished and Bully Pulpit, or subscribe, please visit Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and as always, Mike Vuolo, and I am John McWhorter.