“Make your contribution such as is required in the context.”
Cooperative Principle, Herbert Paul Grice
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
So I’m a new blogger. Taking my very first babysteps into the world of writing things that, well, someone will read. And I need help.
Or I could go back to something I already know after years of studying linguistics. I could take what I already know about communication and apply it to this context. *ding!* Insighting.
The Maxims of Conversation (and Blogging)
Grice’s Cooperation Principle, a pragmatical theory quoted above, could well serve as the backbone of this blog – or any blog, for that matter. The point of the approach is that whenever we communicate, we cooperate with the others to make the conversation understandable.
The Cooperative Principle is based on four maxims that support understandable communication.
1. The maxim of Quality: Try to make your contribution true.
2. The maxim of Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required, but no more.
3. The maxim of Relevance: Make your contribution relevant.
4. The maxim of Manner: Avoid obscurity and ambiguity, and be brief and orderly
1. Quality: Try to make your contribution true
I enjoy fiction as much as the next guy. That is not what I read blogs for, though, and it’s not the reason I’m writing one, either.
First of all, there is actual value in speaking from experience. Never mind the expert viewpoint – I can only really speak of the things that I have seen, heard, and experienced. Furthermore, I can only really have in-sight into things that I’ve struggled through.
This is also why this post is not titled “here’s how to write a top-ranking blog post”. I can’t teach something I don’t know. I hope I can write that post twelve months from now.
2. Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required, but no more.
There’s a fine line between sharing and overexposition. When I’m reading a post about an emotional situation between two people, I want to know if they are mother and daughter or husband and wife. I might also want to know if it’s the first time this has happened, or if there’s a history of this kind of behavior. Without this information I might not understand what exactly the writer is trying to say.
If I’m also told they are fighting at a restaurant, or that it’s twelve noon, or that the weather is stormy, I might get impatient. Why are they telling me this? Can’t they get to the point already? Can’t they figure out what’s important here?
(A brief moment where I pause to take my own advice and move on to the next point.)
3. Relevance: Make your contribution relevant.
The broad topic of this blog is learning, communication, and analysing my insightings. This means that whatever I post should have some bearing to those three concepts. The more I do so, the more my readers (hi, the three of you…) can count on me to be relevant.
This is closely linked to the quantity maxim. If I start my blog post by describing what I had for breakfast, it should have an integral connection with an insighting I’m about to reveal. In drama, the parallel phenomenon is Checkov’s Gun: If there’s a gun onstage during the first act, someone should be shot by the third. If it’s just there for no reason, get rid of it.
4. Manner: Avoid obscurity and ambiguity, and be brief and orderly
When I manage to get a hold of an insighting, it has no actual form; it’s just a jumble of concepts whirring around in my head. Nowhere near brief and orderly, it’s very obscure and often ambiguous. My responsibility as a blogger, and also as a teacher, is to organise that jumble into a reader-friendly form. Again, the Internet is brimming with tips on how to do this, so I won’t go into too much detail today – maybe later, when I’ve had more experience on the matter.
The main thing is to organise the idea, whether you end up with a narrative, a how-to, a detective tale or an interview. Independent of the genre, revising and editing are invaluable tools with this maxim.
Violating vs Flouting Maxims
In ordinary conversation, adhering to these maxims causes successful communication, and violating them results in a communication breakdown. Incidentally, a lot of humor in fiction, be it literature or drama, TV or comics, is based on the violation of one or more maxims. Insufficient information, concealing information, speaking in ambiguous terms or flat out lying are at the root of hundreds of pieces of literature. A handy thing to keep in mind if you ever intend to write fiction. 🙂
Flouting maxims, however, is slightly different. When you flout a maxim, you seem to break one, but the other person in the conversation will still be able to understand your implied meaning. This is why it’s sometimes called “inferential mindreading“.
Imagine you’ve been to see a foreign movie. When your friend asks what you thought of the movie, you answer, “Well, the opening credits were nice.” On the surface, it seems you’re breaking the Quantity maxim: you’re not saying anything about the movie itself! Your friend, however, might infer that you didn’t think much of the movie itself, since you only chose to comment on the opening credits.
If you’d said “I feel we should burn down the theater and the remaining copies of the film,” you’d be flouting the Quality and Relevance maxims. Unless you really consider burning down the theater, your friend will most likely infer, again, that you didn’t think much of the movie.
In blogging, I would err to the side of caution when it comes to flouting maxims. Since the verbal content is all there is, a reader may or may not understand the implication correctly. This is why sarcasm – a form of humor often achieved by flouting these maxims – doesn’t really work as well in writing as it does face-to-face.
Even if I could be sure all (three of) my readers are smart and Internet-literate people, the risk of having some bonehead (excuse the un-PC term) misinterpret an exaggerated remark and burn down a theater, for instance, seems like a big one to take. This is why I’ll try and find funny for this blog through other means.
(If you’re reading this in December 2008, welcome to this brand new thing that is Insightings. There’s a lot more coming up. If you’re reading this in 2009 or later, awesome. Welcome, look around, I’m hoping the archives have everything you came here for.)
Until we meet again – keep catching your own insightings and feel free to share them here!