Maxim of quality

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The Maxim of Quality purports that the speaker should tell the truth in a conversation in order to communicate cooperatively. It is part of the Cooperative Principle postulated by Herbert Paul Grice’s (1975) which is constituted by four conversational maxims: (i) the Maxim of Quantity, (ii) the Maxim of Quality, (iii) the Maxim of Relation and (iv) the Maxim of Manner. These maxims represent “guidelines” for the behaviour of interlocutors in a conversation.



Grice’s Maxim of Quality is a supermaxim which purports that the speaker should tell the truth in a conversation. This maxim is subdivided into two more precise maxims.

  • a) “Do not say what you believe to be false.” (Grice 1975: 46)
  • b) “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.” (Grice 1975: 46)[2]

Relation between the Maxim of Quantity and the Maxim of Quality

As Grice pointed out, the Maxim of Quality often “clashes” with the Maxim of Quantity. According to Harnish (1976) the Maxim of Quality can be combined with the Maxim of Quantity, thus constituting the Maxim of Quantity-Quality: “Make the strongest relevant claim justifiable by your evidence” (Harnish 1976:362)[3]. This maxim deals with scalar implicature particularly with Horn-scales, the systematic sets of items that differ in terms of informativity/‘semantic strength’. (Leech 1983/95: 85). Such sets are for example:

all some
more than as much/many as
have to, must be able to, can
be certain that think that
X and Y X or Y

P is stronger than Q


1) Jill ate some of the biscuits.

2) Jill ate all of the biscuits.

Sentence 2) is stronger than 1). In logical entailment sentence 1) does not exclude the possibility that Jill ate all of the biscuits. This relation of entailment is restricted in the field of pragmatic implicature (comprising the cooperative principle and thus the four Gricean Maxims): If the speaker utters sentence 1), we can according to the Maxim of Quantity-Quality assume that sentence 2) is not true, because otherwise the speaker would have said so. (cf. also entry on Horn scale)



Grice used his Maxim of Quality to explain the rhetorical device of irony , claiming that it constitutes a flouting of that maxim:


A: Do you like my new haircut?
B1: Yes, it looks great.


B2: Oh yes, my mother had such a haircut in the 1980s.

While in B1 the maxim is observed, in B2 it is violated, given that the speaker does not like the haircut and answers in an ironic way.

Another example of a maxim violated by irony is:


A: Reno is the capital of Nevada, isn't it?
B: Yeah, and London´s the capital of New Jersey.

Given that B’s answer is wrong and ironical, s/he appears to violate the Maxim of Qualtiy. A knows that London is not the capital of New Jersey and so he implicates that B is wrong as well.

Grice’s analysis of irony as a flouting of the Maxim of Quality was severely criticized because it was not able to account for a number of types of ironical utterances.


In metaphor, one expression is replaced by another which is not synonymous and belongs to another lexical field. According to Grice, the use of metaphors represents a flouting of the maxim of Quality.

There are two major semantic theories of metaphor:

  • a) The theory of comparison:
Metaphors are similes without predicates of comparison. Instead of “She is like a rose” one has to say “She is a rose”.
  • b) The theory of interaction:
Metaphors are specific applications of linguistic expressions. Here, a >metaphorical< expression (focus) is embedded in another >literal expression< (frame), so that the meaning of the focus interacts with the meaning of the frame and changes it (and the other way around).

Metaphors involve categorical falsity.[8]

5) “She is a rose.”

Literally speaking, the speaker does not tell the truth because a woman is not a rose. However, the woman and the rose are conceived of as having a (set of) feature(s) or properties in common (e.g. the property of being beautiful).

Metaphor and irony can be combined when two stages of interpretation are imposed on the hearer. If the hearer interprets the statement “You are the cream in my coffee” as a metaphor it would mean “You are my pride” and if he/she interprets it ironical it would mean “You are my bane” (Grice 1975: 53). The statement itself violates the maxim because it does not tell the truth.


  • [1]
  • [2] Grice, H. P. “Logic and Conversation.” In: Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Arts. Eds. Cole, Peter and Jerry L. Morgan. New York: Academic Press, 1975. 41-58.
  • [3] Harnish, R.M. “Logical Form and Implicature.” In: An Integrated Theory of Linguistic Abilit. New York: Crowell, 1976. 313- 392.
  • [4] Leech, G. Principle of Pragmatics. 9th Edition. London: Longman, 1983/1995.84-85.
  • [5]
  • [6] Wilson, Deirdre. The pragmatics of veral irony: Echo or pretence? Lingua 116 (2006) 1722-1743.
  • [7] Parker, Frank, Kathryn Riley. Linguistics for Non-Linguists. A Primer With Exercises. Allyn & Bacon, 1993. 23.
  • [8] Levinson, Stephen C. Pragmatik. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1990.101-168.
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