Theories behind business linguistics: Paul Grice (part 1)

Theories behind Business Linguistics: Conversational Maxims

This week, we begin looking at the theory with the biggest impact on business linguistics, pragmatics; the study of meaning in context.

In the first of two posts, we begin by looking at the thoughts of one of the founding fathers of pragmatics, philosopher Paul Grice.

Grice’s Maxims

Grice identified four key factors to create an effective conversation. He called these ‘conversational maxims’.

These are basically four really simple statements as follows:

  • The maxim of quantity: Don’t say any more or less than you need to.
  • The maxim of quality: Say things that are true and provable.
  • The maxim of relation: Say things that relate to what other people have said.
  • The maxim of manner: Say things that are clear and unambiguous.

Grice’s maxims in training

Here are some tips on applying the four maxims in training situations to help the clarity and expression of your trainees:


When listening to someone, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have they explained themselves fully?
  • Are they still talking?

If so:

  1. Ask them to stop and think about what they said.
  2. Ask them if what they said was complete.
  3. Ask them to repeat their message with only the required information.

It’s a similar process when someone gives limited information that you don’t really understand:

  1. Repeat what you understood and ask if it’s correct.
  2. Elicit extra information.
  3. Ask them to repeat their message including the new information.


It’s easier to follow someone, and be persuaded by them if what they say is provable and measurable in your experience.

In order to help your trainees present clearer, more persuasive ideas, encourage them to use examples and demonstrate how their idea works in practice.


Have you ever listened to someone and had no idea how their comment fits into the conversation?

Have they been listening?

Why are they saying this?

If your trainees seem to comment at random, stop them and:

  • Ask them how their idea is linked to previous ideas in the conversation.
  • Ask them how they can show this link in their speech.
  • Ask them to repeat their comment showing the relationship to the conversation.


In a conversation, it’s common for people to start speaking before thinking. As a result, ideas can be confused and difficult to understand.

When this happens to trainees, use this technique to help them:

  • Summarise what you think they’re trying to say.
  • Elicit exactly what they’re trying to say.
  • Ask them how they can structure their idea more clearly.
  • Ask them to repeat their comment.

These days, I find myself helping people express themselves clearly in all sorts of situations. Grice and his maxims have provided an invaluable tool to do that.

To find out more:

 Paul Grice, Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Logic & Conversation, H.P Grice, UCL Study Pack 



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