Conversation Participants

The first maxim that participants in conversations must obey is the maxim of quality. This maxim says that we don’t purposefully lie when speaking and that we avoid saying anything that we lack sufficient evidence to support. In the ESL classroom, we sometimes break this rule in order to practice different speaking situations. We might have students pretend to be an expert in a field they no nothing about. Before beginning an activity like this, we can avoid confusion by making it clear to the students that we are breaking a maxim.

The second maxim says that we are relevant in our speech. Here is a conversation that illustrates the concept:

Alana: Is Jamie dating anyone these days?

Brian: Well, she goes to Boston twice a week.

Because of the maxim of relevance, Brian’s response is assumed to relate to the question. We assume that Jamie has a boyfriend in Boston who she visits twice a week. If Brian responded with something like “The Chicago Cubs won the World Series,” Alana would probably respond by saying “What are you talking about?” She has every right to say this because Brian has violated a maxim.

ESL students often violate this maxim without meaning to do so. I have asked ESL students on the internet “What do you do?” and gotten the response “I’m watching TV.” Students understand that I’m asking them “What are you doing?” Additionally, in TV shows or conversations when we break relevancy for a point, student’s may be lost. Let’s imagine two characters on the tv series Friends have to suddenly change the topic to avoid being overheard. One says, “I think Joey is angry” then Joey comes in the room and the other says “I didn’t know you made birthday cakes.” An ESL student might not understand why this is said.

The maxim of quantity tell us to provide only the necessary amount of information. For example, if someone asks where we live, we may respond with a lot of detail or we may only give vague compass coordinates. All of this depends on context. If we are talking to someone from our state, we will probably give the specific town. If we are travelling in Europe, we may only give the state or even less. Often ESL students are confused by the questions “Where do you live?” and “Where are you from?” The questions seem to be asking for the same thing, but in English we often use “Where are you from?” to mean “Where were you born?” “Where do you live?” is obviously about one’s current living situations.

Finally, when we are overly wordy, ambiguous or obscure in our speech we break the maxim of manner. We also break this maxim when we speak out of order. If students are writing a cover letter for a job and begin by talking about their hobbies or family life, then in a sense they have broken the expected rules of order in a resume. We expect people to begin a resume by discussing their interest in the position. If students answer the question “Do you like school?” by saying “Currently, I am going to a public school and I’m loving very much the experience,” they have not only broken the expectation of a “yes” or “no” answer, but they have also provided too much information.

As one of my favorite bosses said to me, language follows thought. In other words, language more often then not is trying to be logical just as our thoughts, sentences, and ideas strive to be logical. It may be that there are many exceptions to the rule and many times that we break the rules. That being said, to master syntactical and pragmatic competence, students need to begin thinking meta-cognitively about speech.