Exploitation of Grice’s Cooperative Principle Maxims Adds More Fun to the Romantic Comedies: A Case of ‘While You Were Sleeping’

(a research-based presentation paper originally; by one NEB; left as such; quoted in a research pages 21-22 here http://repository.upi.edu/operator/upload/s_c0351_054817_chapter2.pdf)


When people communicate, they exchange information. For the messages to be successfully put across, those involved in the communication should share the same common grounds on what is being talked about. Thus the following exchange:

A         : You know, Inul has gone back to Pasuruan

B       : Oh, really? Rhoma Irama’s persuading her to quit dangdut-dancing erotically on TV screen proves to be a success after all then

flows naturally between the two speakers only because both share the same common grounds on what is being exchanged, i.e., Inul. The shared common grounds they have concerning the character may include such information as who Inul is, what she does, etc. In other words, the exchange is successful because A correctly presupposes that B knows who Inul is, what she does, etc. This is also possible because they are, for example, good friends, who share the same common interest. If A instead says the utterance to someone completely not knowing Inul, what will happen is communication breakdown. This principle of speakers’ sharing the same common grounds on what they are discussing constitutes what is termed “cooperative principle” (Grice 1975 in Yule 1996), by which speakers make “conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or the direction of the talk exchange…” (cited in Yule 1996).

The shared common grounds speakers have that make up cooperative principle (CP) does not only concern the subject under discussion as that above, they may also cover other aspects such as the kind of information required by the hearer. In the exchange

Husb.   : Where are the car keys?

Wife     : They’re on the table in the hall (taken from Thomas 1995: 64)

the wife (as well as the husband) know that the husband talks not only about the keys, but also—more importantly—the whereabouts of the keys. Therefore, the wife supplies the exact information required. And if she did not happen to know the whereabouts of the keys, she would simply say, “I don’t know, dear. Why not ask Greg?”

In daily life, though, it is not always the case that parties involved in a conversational  exchange will always cooperate, that is, adhere to the CP. There are apparently various reasons for this, some of which are unwillingness to talk to strangers, feeling of being disturbed, and manufacture of fun.

In many cases, in fact, cooperative principle is exploited in such a way that the exchange in which the principle is to be observed manufactures fun solely. This research seeks to reveal this kind of exploitation of cooperative principle in all its four maxims in romantic comedies for such a purpose.

Exploitation of CP Maxims to Produce Fun: Some Theories

When a speaker blatantly fails to observe a maxim, and therefore flouts the maxim, he or she may not necessarily do it “with any attention of deceiving or misleading, but because the speaker wishes to prompt the hearer to look for a meaning which is different from, or in addition to, the expressed meaning” (Thomas 1995: 65). It is the hearer him- or herself who has to work the implied meaning out, basing that on the context in which the utterance occurs. In many cases, this exploitation is so attempted that not only does it cause the hearer to have to work hard trying to infer the meaning, but it also manufactures fun. Therefore, Yule’s (1996) example of conversational exchange below:

Man      : Does your dog bite?

Woman: No

(The man reaches down to pet the dog. The dog bites the man’s hand)

Man      : Ouch! Hey! You said your dog does not bite

Woman: He doesn’t. But that’s not my dog (p. 36)

exhibits as much wrong inference on the part of the man as it does fun in the whole context of exchange. This simply happens out of the woman’s not supplying adequate information regarding the dog, resulting in her flouting the maxim of quantity. Yet, Yule contends that if the woman had mentioned the last information earlier, the story wouldn’t be as funny. For the event to be funny, the woman has to give less information than is expected.

Thomas (1995) further details how CP maxims can be exploited, the result of which may potentially produce fun:

1. quantity,

when a speaker blatantly gives more or less information than the situation requires.


A         : Is she nice?

B        : Well, I wouldn’t mind marrying her

(Less information is given)

2. quality,

when the speaker says something which is blatantly untrue or for which he or she lacks adequate evidence. In the words of Stevenson (1987), this exploitation results in what he calls “intentionally exaggerated lie” or “tall tale” “told with a sincere, straight face” (110). He gives an example of a used-car salesman who—upon trying to sell the used car to a potential customer—says that the car “was driven only on Sunday afternoons by a shy ballet dancer” (110).

3. relation,

when the speaker makes a response or observation which is very irrelevant to the topic in hand (e.g. by abruptly changing the subject, or by overtly failing to address the other person’s goal in asking a question [or making a statement]).


I finished working on my face. I grabbed my bag and a coat. I told my Mother I was going out.. She asked me where I was going. I repeated myself. ‘Out’ (quoting George 1994: 91).

4. manner,

when the speaker gives an extremely long-winded and convoluted response in place of a short, brief one.


Int.      : Did the United States Government play any part in Duvalier’s departure?

Did they, for example, actively encourage him to leave?

Official: I would not try to steer you away from that conclusion

Exploitation of CP Maxims and Romantic Comedies

Romantic comedies are movies depending not so much on actors and actresses’ actions as on their lines or utterances. Therefore, one can expect that romantic comedies may expose lots of utterances whose speakers exploit CP maxims in order to manufacture fun. An example of exchange of this kind presented by Thomas (1996) taken originally from the movie Splash explains this:

A         : Do you want a coat?

B         : No, I really want to stand out here in the freezing cold with no clothes on (p. 63)

Exploiting the maxim of quality, of course B doesn’t really mean what he or she says. And it’s up to A to know or not to know his or her intention. Yet one can see the fun exhibited by B here. Surprisingly , Thomas contends that this is the sort of sarcastic reply we encounter everyday and have no problem at all in interpreting.

Limitation of Problem

The problem this research tries to address is formulated as follows:

1. Does exploitation of CP maxims really occur in romantic comedies justifiably?

2. What kinds of CP maxims are mostly exploited?

Purpose of the Research

The purpose of the research is to find out if exploitation of CP maxims occurs justifiably in romantic comedies, and what kinds of maxims are mostly exploited.

Research Methodology


The research samples conversational exchanges taken from the romantic comedy titled While You Were Sleeping. The reason for choosing this movie is that it is a popular romantic comedy not depending on its actors and actresses’ actions. Yet it is very romantic and produces a lot of fun in many funny scenes. This is believed to owe to the utterances spoken by the actors and actresses. It is this way assumed that exploitation of maxims may abound.

Research Instrument

I myself serve as a primary data-gathering instrument (Lincoln and Guba 1985 in Alwasilah 2002: 78). To make sense of the data collected, I employ introspective-analytical method (Alwasilah 2002: 69), by which I analyze the data or corpus so as to find possible exploitation of maxims using the CP maxims formula proposed by Grice (1975 in Yule 1996) as further elaborated by Thomas (1995).


All exchanges in the movie that potentially expose exploitation of maxims are excerpted and transcribed. Each exchange is then analyzed as to find possible exploitation of maxims employing the CP maxims proposed by Grice (1975 in Yule 1996) as elaborated further by Thomas (1995).

Data Analysis and Discussion

The movie is about love at second sight. It is centered on three leading figures, namely, Lucy, Peter, and Jack. Lucy is a train station ticket seller, whose ticket booth Peter passes by every morning on his way to work as he goes to work by train. Lucy eventually falls for Peter because of his charm. One morning approaching Christmas, Peter passes Lucy’s ticket booth as usual, paying a token. While waiting for the train, suddenly he is pushed down the tracks by two persons trying to rob him. Lucy sees this and helps. She takes him to the nearest hospital. This is where things get messed up. Lucy is mistaken for Peter’s fiancée. Luckily Peter’s family warmly welcomes her. Then Jack comes along. While Peter is in a coma because of the incident, Lucy gets along with Jack. Soon Lucy falls for Jack.

As many as 34 exchanges are taken and transcribed. From these exchanges, as many as 57 cases of exploitation of maxims are observed. The maxims exploited—put in order of most through fewest occurrences—are relation (31), quality (21), and quantity (5).

Randomly, some examples are as follows:

– When Peter’s grandma and Peter’s godfather (Saul) sit in front of TV talking about someone:

Grand. : New year’s eve hasn’t been the same since Guy Lombardo died

Saul     : I love the clarinet. Nobody plays the clarinet anymore

Grand. : Guy Lombardo didn’t play the clarinet

Saul     : I didn’t say Guy Lombardo played the clarinet

Here Saul flouts the maxim of relation when saying I love the clarinet …. He fails to address Peter’s grandma’s goal in making her opening statement. As a result, she thinks that Saul means that Guy Lombardo played the clarinet. This prompts her to say Guy Lombardo didn’t play the clarinet.

– When Lucy’s supervisor (Jerry) persuades Lucy to work on Christmas:

Jerry    : Lucy 4x, I’m glad to find you here

Lucy    : I was hoping you’d find me in Bermuda

Jerry  : Bermuda, O it’s good. I am recommending you for employee of the month

It is observed that Lucy flouts the maxim of relation when saying I was hoping …. The response is irrelevant to Jerry’s statement. This is not exactly what Jerry would expect Lucy to say, which is why, for example, Jerry comments very little on that saying Bermuda. O that’s good, then switches to the subject he means to discuss by uttering I am recommending you employee of the month.

– At the hospital, when Peter’s grandma looks like she is going to faint out:

Doc     : Is she OK?

Saul    : She has a little heart problem. She’s had three attacks already

Grand. : They weren’t attacks; they were episodes

Saul     : Nothing wrong with her hearing

It is obvious here that Saul flouts the maxim of quality when saying She has a little heart problem …. Apparently he does not know for sure if Peter’s grandma has had heart attacks or just episodes for three times. He lacks evidence regarding this matter. And when Saul says Nothing wrong with her hearing, he flouts the maxim of relation. The statement is irrelevant to the point of discussion at hand. But that is what makes it funny.

– When Jerry tells Lucy about his marrying his wife now years ago and whether she should clear up the mess, i.e., Peter’s family mistaking her for his fiancée:

Jerry   : When my mom found out I was getting married to my wife, her intestines exploded. Now you tell them now, you may as well shoot the grandma

Lucy    : Oh!

Jerry flouts the maxim of quality. He tells an “intentionally exaggerated lie” when saying the utterance. Of course he does not really mean that. That is how it is funny.

– In the church, while the family is attending a mass:

Dad     : For Christ’s sake Jack!

Mom    : Stop swearing

Dad     : We’re running the business now

Jack     : There’s something I’d like to talk to you about

Mom    : Talk about that later OK?

Sister   : Talk about it now. He can’t kill you in church

Stranger: Would you please pipe down?

Dad     : Hey, be nice, paly. We’re in church

Stranger: You’re disrupting the mass

Dad     : Who made you the Pope?

Mom    : Ox…?

Grand. : How did Joe Kelly get to be a lector? He takes marijuana

Mass    : Amen!!

Peter’s sister flouts the maxim of relation when saying He can’t kill you in church. It is irrelevant though makes some sense. That is, the father may get rude when talking about business with his son at home. So Jack had better talk about it now. The father will certainly not yell in front of lots of people listening to him!

Peter’s father flouts the maxim of relation also when saying Who made you the Pope? It is an irrelevant response to the statement made by the stranger. A relevant response would be something like OK, Ok, pal. But, of course, this will not be funny.

Peter’s grandma flouts the maxim of quality when saying How did Joe Kelly get to be a lector?… She may not know that for sure. It’s nowhere indicated in the movie that Joe Kelly takes marijuana. But to make that worse, the mass answers Amen in chorus. That is very funny.

It can be observed that the exploitation of maxims does not occur only between two people talking to each other on an uttering-responding basis like in those exchanges above. In addition, it also occurs among a number of people talking to one another with the direction not being clear. An example is the following:

– At a dinner where Lucy is among Peter’s family members:

Mom    : So, Lucy, have you and Peter decided where you’re going to go on your honeymoon?

Saul     : I went to Cuba

Grand. : Ricky Ricardo was Cuban

Mom    : Didn’t Peter look great today?

Saul     : O, that kid. You know, he should’ve been an actor

Grand. : He’s tall

Dad     : All the great ones were tall

Mom    : Lucy, do you think you can find me a nice girl for Jack?

Jack     : O, Mom, come on

Lucy    : I I I really don’t know Jack’s type

Jack     : I like blondes, chubby ones

Saul     : Alan Ladd wasn’t tall

Dad     : Marshal Dillon was six-foot five

Mom    : Well, we all know who Lucy’s type is


Mom    : These mashed potatoes are so creamy

Sister   : You like brunettes

Grand. : I could never make a good pot roast

Saul     : You need good beef

Argentina has great beef. Beef and Nazis

Dad     : John Wayne was tall

Saul     : Dustin Hoffman was five-six

Dad     : Would you want to see Dustin Hoffman save the Alamo?

Mom    : These mashed potatoes are so creamy

Dad     : Spain has good beef

Mom    : Mary mashed ’em

Saul     : Caesar Romero was tall

Grand. : Caesar Romero was not Spanish

Saul     : I didn’t say Caesar Romero was Spanish

Grand. : Well, what did you say?

Saul     : I said Caesar Romero was tall

Grand. : We all know he’s tall

Saul     : That’s all I said. Caesar Romero was tall

It is obvious that Saul flouts the maxim of relation when saying I went to Cuba…. His response is irrelevant. He is not the one expected to answer. Likewise, grandma also flouts the maxim of relation by making an irrelevant statement Ricky Ricardo was Cuban. Mom’s saying Didn’t Peter look great today? can be regarded as an attempt to gear everybody back to the topic in hand, i.e., Peter. And she is successful, at least for a while. Then all of a sudden, Saul says Alan Ladd wasn’t tall, this way flouting the maxim of relation. It is now irrelevant to utter that statement given the last line by Jack saying I like blondes, chubby ones. But Saul may argue that he responds to Dad’s previous statement All the great ones were tall. This continues to the end of the exchange.


From the excerpted exchanges and the analysis on the utterances of the exchanges, it can be concluded that exploitation of CP maxims occurs in romantic comedies with respect to the movie discussed. The exploitation is so attempted as to manufacture fun in funny scenes in the movie. As this research serves to be a pioneer one, more researches should be conducted on the subject.


Grundy, P. 2000. Doing Pragmatics (2nd ed.). NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Stevenson, D.K. 1987. American Life and Institutions. Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Schulbuch Verlage GmbH u. Co. Kg.

Thomas, J. 1995. Meaning in Interaction: an Introduction to Pragmatics. NY: Longman Group Limited.

Yule, G. 1996. Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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