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 



Theories behind Business Linguistics: Speech Acts

Speech acts, a key part of theory of Business Linguistics

In this first post on the theory behind Business Linguistics, we look at speech acts, locution and illocution.

What would you understand if I said:

‘I order you to read this post’?

Your opinion of me may vary wildly but your understanding of the sentence is probably fairly unambiguous.

This is an example of a performative speech act. Where the words I use capture exactly what I am doing.

What if I said ‘I’m very much looking forward to hearing your comments on this post’?

Based on the locution, the meaning of the words, we could assume that I want to know your opinion of the post but is that the whole story?

What if you had no intention of reading the post? Does the above statement pressurise you into reading it?

Here we’re considering illocution, or the meaning of an utterance, rather than individual words. Illocution is often contextual.

Effective communication often relies on successfully transmitting and interpreting  the illocutionary force of utterances – the meaning behind the words.

Sometimes the illocution is obvious but it can very easily be misinterpreted, particularly if your dealing with someone from a different culture, with different illocutionary norms.

Improving illocutionary awareness:

Stage 1

Give learners some simple sentences, such as:

I’m cold.

Can you see the salt?

I’m really busy at the moment.

Ask learners to write an appropriate response.

Discuss the responses.

Stage 2

Introduce different contexts

e.g ‘Can you see the salt?’

  1. You’re in a supermarket.
  2. You’re at the dinner table.

Ask learners what’s the appropriate response now and why?

Stage 3

Ask learners to analyse their own language and decide if they rely on the locutionary or illocutionary meaning of language.

How might this tendency cause miscommunication or perceptions of impoliteness?

To find out more:

How to do things with words, J L Austin

Speech Acts, The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy

What is Business Linguistics?

The most powerful thing in the world is an idea.

Ideas change the world, transform lives and destroy them. All of the best and worst moments in human history began with an idea.

But what happened next?

That idea was put into words. Words that inspired. Words that empowered. Words that transformed a simple idea and created a movement. A movement that changed the world.

And how was the world changed? With words.

It’s crazy isn’t it? Just a few words can change the world. How often do we think about it?

But what if you did think about it?

What if you thought about every word that came out of your mouth?

How would your relationships change? How would your performance improve? How much more effective would you be?

On this site, we consider the words that business people use. We look at how these words affect relationships and results and we discuss how changing your words can drive meaningful personal change and professional development.

If you work, look at the for professionals section for advice on how you can change your words to perform better at work.

If you train people at work, look at the for trainers section for tips and ideas on how you can make your clients’ words more effective.