Maxim of relevance

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Definition

The maxim of relevance -- originally called the 'maxim of relation' by Grice (1975) -- is one of Grice's four conversational maxims, which jointly constitute the cooperative principle. Grice (1975: 47) defines it as follows: "I expect a partner’s contribution to be appropriate to immediate needs at each stage of the transaction".

Leech (1983: 94) provides the following definition of the notion of relevance: "An utterance U is relevant to a speech situation if U can be interpreted as contributing to the conversational goal(s) of speaker or hearer". Leech states that the speaker strives for a certain goal by stating his question and that the hearer adopts this goal when giving an answer.

Example

In many cases the relevance of an answer needs to be inferred on the basis of information from the context. Leech (1983: 94) provides the following example:

A: Where is my box of chocolates?
B: It’s in your room.

can be compared to

A: Where is my box of chocolates?
B: The children were in your room this morning.

B’s contribution in the first example abides by the maxim of relevance, since a direct and appropriate answer to the question is given. B’s answer in the second example appears not to be relevant to the question at first sight. However, the second example could still be relevant to the speaker. A will assume that B abides by the cooperative principle and will therefore infer that specific implied meanings are being conveyed. In the example given, such implicatures could be that the children may have eaten the chocolate, or that the children may know where the chocolate is, as they were in A’s room.

Comments

According to Grice, the maxim of relevance cannot easily be flouted, as speakers will always try to establish a relation to preceding discourse, or extract metalinguistic information from an utterance. Grice (1975: 54) discusses the following example:

A: Mrs. X is an old bag.
B: The weather has been quite delightful this summer, hasn’t it?

The maxim of relevance appears to be flouted, but B's utterance is nonetheless interpretable in context, as the communicative intention conveyed in this case is a change of subject.

The principle of relevance constitutes the basis of Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986), who interpret the term differently from Grice, however.

See also

References

  • Grice, H.P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In: P. Cole and J.L. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts, 41-58. New York: Academic Press.
  • Leech, G. (1983). Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman.
  • Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson (1995). Relevance: Communication and Cognition. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.