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The Big Bang Theory Essay

This essay discusses the four maxims of Grice’s co-operative principle and how they are broken. In the first section I describe each of the four maxims. By providing dialogues from an American sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’; I explain how each of these maxims are broken in various ways.

In the second section, I examine how these methods of breaking maxims can overlap one another. In the final section, I conclude on the role that these maxims play in conversation and how they achieve humorous effects in situational comedies.

1.1 WHAT IS GRICE’S CO-OPERATIVE PRINCIPLE?The English language philosopher Paul Grice proposes that speakers and hearers have a common purpose or at least share a mutually accepted direction in a conversation (Robinson , 2006, pg. 161). Therefore he formulates a general principle which the participants of the conversation will be expected to observe in order to be perceived as competent. He calls this the Cooperative principle and it consists of four maxims: quantity, quality, manner and relation.

Maxim of quantity:Be as informative as one possibly can and give as much information as needed. Do not say less or more than is requiredMaxim of quality:Only say things that one believes to be trueDo not say things which are false or lack evidenceMaxim of relevance:Make one’s contribution relevant to the current conversationMaxim of manner:Avoid being obscureAvoid ambiguityBe brief and orderly in speech(W.Littlejohn, 2002, pg. 79-80)In my first draft of my assignment, I probably wrote too much on how these maxims are broken while I did not discuss these maxims independently in more detail. It is raised to my attention that these maxims can overlap each other. For instance, one may be confused by the maxim of quantity and the maxim of manner. Surely, if a speaker gives more information than is required, is it not true that the speaker is being obscure at the same time?

This may be explained by thinking in terms of units of information. For example, if the hearer is expected to receive five units of information but gets more or less than this expected number, then the speaker is breaking the maxim of quantity. However, if the speaker gives the required five units of information but delivers it in a long-winded and obscure manner, the speaker is breaking the maxim of manner. (Paltridge, 2006, pg.65). In addition, there are also instances where the maxim of quantity and quality are broken simultaneously (see 3.0).

1.2 HOW THESE MAXIMS ARE BROKENThere are primarily four ways that these four maxims could be broken (see table 1.0).

Table 1.0 showing how the four maxims could be brokenWays to break these four maximsHow it works(1) Violation(1A)The hearer does not realize that a maxim has been broken(1B) The speaker has the intention to deceive or mislead the hearer(2) Flouting(2A) The speaker deliberately does not observe the maxim and that the hearer is aware of this(2B) The speaker assumes the hearer can make an inference and interpret the speaker’s utterance differently(3) Infringement (3A) The speaker has no intention of deceiving or generating an inference to the hearer(3B) However, the speaker still fails to observe the maxim.

(4) Opted out for(4A) Speaker refuses to cooperate in the way the maxim requires. This occurs when the speaker refuses to provide information under moral and ethical concerns.

(Martinich, 1984, pg.33-36 & Thomas, 1995)Now, I discuss how Grice’s maxims are broken by these four studies by studying dialogues from an American sitcom called ‘The Big Bang theory’. (see Table 1.2)Key:S – SeasonE – Episode(Table 1.2, showing the key to identify the season and episode of the sitcom series ‘The Big Bang Theory’)[2.0 BREAKING MAXIMS]2.1 VIOLATING MAXIMS2.1.1 Violating the Quantity MaximS3E07[Penny says that she won’t be free the following Sunday to Leonard because she has to pick up her friend, Justin from the airport]PENNY: I have to pick up my friend Justin at the airportLEONARD: Who is this Justin?PENNY: My friend from Omaha; plays the guitar. Anyway, he’s coming to L.A. looking forsome session work, so I told him he could just crash on your couch for a few weeks.

LEONARD: Hang on; some guy is going to be sleeping on my couch?5PENNY: He’s not some guy. He’s my friend.

LEONARD: So by friend do you mean ‘friend friend’, ‘gay friend’ or ‘ex-boyfriend’ whoyou’re not platonic with but still might have a thing for you, friend’?PENNY: Okay, we went out a little bit, a long time ago.

Analysis of Dialogue 2.1.1In this conversation, we can see that Penny has been hiding information from the beginning where until the last line she admits that Justin and her has been in a relationship (Line 9). She explains to Leonard that Justin is merely a friend, so to persuade Leonard into agreeing that Justin can stay at their apartment.

This violates the maxim of quantity because Penny gave too little information to deceive Leonard and ensure that Justin could sleep at his apartment.

2.1.2 Violating the Quality MaximS2 E04[People magazine are naming Raj, one of their 30 people under 30 to watch](Raj talks about his speech during lunch)RAJ: My heartwarming and personal narrative is going to be about a humble boy from New 1Delhi who overcame poverty and prejudice and journeyed to American to reach for the stars.

HOWARD: Poverty? Your father’s a gynecologist. He drives a Bentley.

Analysis of Dialogue 2.1.2In this extract, Raj attempts to deceive the audience (Line 1-3). An Indian person, who grew up in the slums and accomplished a scientific discovery, would obviously be more newsworthy than someone who grew up from a wealthy background, whereby they have received adequate education to do so. Nevertheless, Howard sees through his deceptions and argues that because his father is rich, Raj could not have been growing up in poverty (Line 3).Therefore, Raj violates the maxim of quality. This is because he is trying to impress the audience through deception and lies.

2.1.3 Violating the Manner MaximS3 E06[Leonard is watching a football game with Penny’s friends. Sheldon walks in to borrow some toast. He sees Leonard.]SHELDON: So Leonard, how goes the mimesis?LEONARD: mimesis?SHELDON: You know. Mimesis. An action in which the mimic takes on the properties of aspecific object or organism.

LEONARD: what are you talking about?5SHELDON: I’m attempting to communicate with you without my meaning becoming apparent tothose around you. Let me try againSHELDON: Have the indigenous fauna accepted you as one of their own? Nudge nudge wink winkLEONARD: Oh I guess so.

Analysis of Dialogue 2.1.3As the background of the conversation suggests, Sheldon attempts to disguise his subject matter when he communicates with Leonard so that he will not raise suspicion from the people around him (Line 1-8). In the beginning, Sheldon did not intend to violate the maxim of manner. Rather, he flouts the maxim of manner to ensure Leonard can comprehend his implicit question without raising suspicion (Line 1-4). However, his question was too unclear and prompts Leonard to ask what his question meant. Sheldon explains that, he is speaking in this manner because he does not want to raise any attention from Penny’s friends. He then further simplifies his expressions and communicates vocal actions (Line 8), albeit still complicated, Leonard understands and answers him (Line 9).

Therefore, Sheldon violates the maxim of manner to Penny’s friends as he intentionally speaks to Leonard in an obscure manner to deceive them by not raising suspicion. As a result, it will not offend any of Penny’s friends.

2.1.4 Violating of Relevance MaximS2 E15[Penny, carrying a laundry basket, emerges from the basement to find a woman with a suitcase standing in the lobby staring at the “Out of Order” sign and the Caution tape covering theBroken elevator](Leonard’s relatives are all educated people)(Penny knows that Leonard’s mother is coming to visit)PENNY: It’s out of orderWOMAN: Yes, I can read the sign. I’m just pondering the implications.

PENNY: I think it implies that the elevator doesn’t workWOMAN: Again, I can read the sign. But the sign and the tape are covered with a layerof dust, which indicates that the elevator has been non-functional for5a significant amount of time, which suggests either a remarkable passivitiy among the…I assume…24 to 36 residents of this building, based on the number of mailboxesand given typical urban population density or a shared delusion of functionality…PENNY (realizes): You must be Leonard’s mother.

WOMAN: What gave it away? And you are..?Analysis of Dialogue 2.1.4In this conversation, Penny violates the maxim of relevance (Line 9). Penny knows about Leonard’s mother’s visit in advance. She also realizes that everyone in his family are scientists, if not professors. Through acknowledging the woman’s formal and technical use of her sentences and her analytical and acute observation, Penny incorporates all this background information and derives the conclusion that the woman is Leonard’s mother. However, this unexpected introduction of a new topic (Line 9) has nothing to do with the current exchange of conversation about the ‘Out of order’ sign.

Penny violates the maxim of relevance because her abrupt introduction of a new topic has nothing to do with the previous conversation. She was not trying to deceive Leonard’s mother but rather is a sudden realization of the woman’s identity (Line 9). This is a violation of the relevance maxim because the woman does not fully understand Penny’s deductive implication of Penny’s statement (Line 10).

2.2.0 FLOUTING MAXIMS2.2.1 Flouting the Quantity MaximS2E10[Sheldon and Howard are bickering over a chirp chirp noise they heard and deciding whether it is a snowy tree cricket or a normal field cricket. While Howard insists it is a normal field cricket Sheldon thinks otherwise](chirp chirp noise)SHELDON: Based on the number of chirps per minute and the ambient temperature in this roomit is a snowy tree cricketHOWARD: How could you possibly know that?SHELDON: In 1890 Emile Dolbear determined that there was a fixed relationship between theNumber of chirps per minute of the snowy tree cricket and the ambient temperature.

A precise relationship that is not present with ordinary field cricketsHOWARD: You’re not right this time. I know insects my friend. I spent many childhood yearscapturing them with nets putting them in glass jars sticking pins through themmounting them on corrugated cardboard with Dymo labels underneath identifying the genus and species. In Latin.10Analysis of Dialogue 2.2.1Howard flouts the maxim of quantity because he explains endlessly about his deep-rooted scientific knowledge and familiarity towards insects (Line 7-10). By doing so, it implies that Howard may be more of an expert in insects than Sheldon.

2.2.2 Flouting the Quality MaximS3E09[Sheldon receives some good news and would like to tell his friends the good news]SHELDON: Well, this is very exciting and I wanted you guys to be among the first to know.

KRIPKE: Hey Sheldon. I hear you’re going to be on the radio with Ira Flatow from Science Fridaynext week.

SHELDON: Thank you, Kripke, for depriving me of the opportunity to share my news withmy friends. 5KRIPKE: My pleasureAnalysis of Dialogue 2.2.2Here, Sheldon is excited about the good news that he has received. He is looking forward towards telling his best friends about this (Line 1). Kripkie then interrupts and tells his friends the good news that Sheldon was prepared to inform (Line 2-3). Sheldon flouts the maxim of quality since he then expresses thanks to Kripkie insincerely. While it is obvious that someone who deprives one of something should not be thanked but rather scorned, this generates an implication. Sheldon was not really appreciating gratitude; rather he is criticizing Kripkie for taking away his opportunity to inform his friends of the good news (Line 4-5).

There are also instances, where the speaker may flout the quality maxim not to generate an inference, but for reasons of tact and politeness. For instance, when someone asks you how they look, you will most naturally say they look fine, as this will not offend them.

2.2.4 Flouting the Manner MaximS02E02[Leonard/Sheldon/Howard/Raj were discussing whether the canteen lady is hot or not]LEONARD: I think she’s hotHOWARD: I hit thatSHELDON: You’ll hit particulate soil on a colloidal suspension. Mud.

Analysis of Dialogue 2.2.4Sheldon flouts the maxim of manner because he uses technical and scientific terms to describe mud. His utterances could be entirely replaced by the word ‘MUD’. However, this manner of speaking may have other implications. Since the canteen lady has a repulsive appearance, Sheldon is emphasizing the eagerness of Howard to engage in a sexual relationship.

Dialogue 2.2.3 Flouting the Relevance MaximS02E10[Stephanie and Leonard are having breakfast. Penny walks into the apartment asking for coffee](Penny greets Stephanie and Leonard)(Stephanie knows nothing about Penny)STEPHANIE: Leonard? How come she’s heard of me and why haven’t I heard a thing about this woman who comes into your apartment in her underwear.

LEONARD: She’s heard about you because we were involved and you haven’t heard about her Because….(looks at penny) I never slept with her I swear!Analysis of Dialogue 2.2.3In this dialogue, Leonard is attempting to defend and explain himself on the basis that it will not offend Stephanie or Penny (Lines 3-4). He soon realizes the implied meaning of Stephanie’s question. She was more concerned with the fact that there is a young and beautiful woman, wearing her underwear and entering Leonard’s apartment unreservedly. This implies that Leonard and Penny have some unusual relationship between each other (Line 1-2). When Leonard comprehends this, he immediately changes the subject of discussion and answers Stephanie’s implied question. This is still relevant in terms of achieving social goals (Line 3-4). Leonard flouts the maxim of relevance, because he abruptly changes the topic of discussion in the middle of his sentence.

Dialogue 2.3 Opting out of maximsS2E10[After Penny tells Sheldon about her problems with Leonard, she requests Sheldon tokeep this information as a secret]LEONARD: What did I do wrong? (questioning Sheldon what went wrong between Penny and him)SHELDON: Why are you asking me, I have no information about your interactions with Pennyother than what you provided me, nor do I have any method of learning such things.

(Runs away.)LEONARD (chasing after him): What does that mean? 5Analysis of dialogue 2.3In this extract, Sheldon refuses to answer Leonard on the basis of moral grounds. Sheldon promised that he would not tell Leonard Penny’s secret under any circumstances. Opting out therefore suggests that the speaker is unwilling to cooperate in the way the maxim requires – such as an answer to a question. Sheldon is doing so, on the basis that it will not breech a confidentiality agreement with Penny (keeping her secret). Therefore, Sheldon is opting out of maxims.

Dialogue 2.4 Infringement of maximsS2e03[Penny is frustrated. She tells Sheldon the reason why she was rejected at her first audition in two years.]PENNY: The directors said I was too Midwest. Too Midwest – what the hell does thateven mean?SHELDON: well the American Midwest was mostly settled by Scandinavian and Germanic people.

They have a characteristic facial bone structure.

PENNY: I know what it means Sheldon!5Analysis of Dialogue 2.4Here, Penny (Line 2) is expressing a rhetorical question rather than requesting a definition to the term ”Midwest’. A reassuring comment would most likely be the conventional response.

Nevertheless, Sheldon, being the usual social idiot as he is, does not derive this and therefore answers what he is questioned. This answer annoys Penny because it was not what she was expecting.

Therefore, infringement occurs when the speaker has no intention of generating an implicature and with no intention of deceiving, fails to observe the maxim. As we saw from the extract, the speaker Sheldon does not realize this rhetorical question (Line 2) and therefore is incapable of producing the correct response.

[3.0 OVERLAPPING OF THESE WAYS OF BREAKING MAXIMS]3.1 Flouting of Quantity, Manner and Opted out of MaximsDialogueS2E01[Sheldon walks into the apartment and says he wants to move out because he cannot restrain himself from telling Leonard Penny’s secret] SHELDON: I’m moving out LeonardLEONARD: What do you mean moving out? Why?SHELDON: There doesn’t have to be a reason LEONARD: There kinda doesSHELDON: Not necessarily. This is a classic example of munchausens trilemma. 5Either the reason is predicated on a series of sub-reasons leading to an infinite regressionor it tracks back to arbitrary axiomatic statements or its ultimately circular i.e. I’m movingout because I’m moving out.

Analysis of Dialogue 3.1Sheldon violates the maxim of quantity. He provides more information than is required as he explains his reasons for moving out. At the same time, he provides less information than is required because his conclusion is circular. Sheldon is trying to mislead Leonard, so that he will not ask him any more questions.

Therefore, his reasoning is redundant and long-winded which flouts the maxim of manner (Lines 5-8). Since his conclusion is the same as he started with, this implies that Sheldon does not wish to continue discussing this matter.

Sheldon is also opting out of maxims. This is because he refuses to tell Leonard the truth because he has made an agreement with Penny. He is convinced that he cannot restrain himself from telling her secret to Leonard.

3.2 Flouting of Quantity, Manner and Quality MaximsS2E02[Sheldon is sitting on the doorsteps while talking to Penny – He was kicked out by Leonard and his new girlfriend Leslie Winkle]PENNY: Why are you sitting on the stairs Sheldon?SHELDON: Leonard is upstairs in my apartment with my archenemyPENNY: Archenemy?SHELDON: Yes the Dr. Doom to my Mr. Fantastic. The Dr. Octopus to my Spiderman.

Dr. Salvana to my Captain Marvels5PENNY: Sheldon you’re losing meSHELDON: it’s Leslie Winkle, Penny.

Analysis of Dialogue 3.2Here, Sheldon is flouting the maxim of quality, by saying that Leslie Winkle and him are superheroes and villains, it implies that the hatred between both of them is mutually shared.

Sheldon also did not provide enough information about Leonard’s companion. He only describes the relationship between him and Leonard’s companion as archenemies. By doing so, he has provided too little information about Leonard’s companion. This implies that Sheldon dislikes Leonard’s new girlfriend because this was the first thing he introduces about Leonard’s companion to Penny. Thus, he flouts the maxim of quantity.

Penny was confused when Sheldon expresses these superhero metaphors (Line 6). This may be because Penny does not know that Leonard is spending a night in his apartment with his new girlfriend (Line 2). Penny also does not know that Sheldon and Leslie Winkle hated each other and therefore does not understand why Sheldon would call her as his arch enemy (Line 2). These factors, lead to Penny’s confusion. Consequently, this emphasizes Sheldon’s hatred towards Leslie Winkle. Therefore, Sheldon flouts the maxim of manner.

Dialogue 3.3 Flouting of Manner, Quality and Violation of Relevance MaximsS2e03[Sheldon walks out of the apartment and sees Penny struggling with the door lock]SHELDON: What are you doing?PENNY: I got my key jammed into the lock. I can’t get it out.

SHELDON: Well its not surprising – that Baldwin lock on your door uses traditionaledge-mounted cylinders whereas the keys to your Volkswagen uses a centercylinder system5PENNY: [glares at Sheldon in frustration] Thank you Sheldon.

SHELDON: You’re welcome. By the way why did you put your car key in the door lock?PENNY: Why? I’ll tell you why because today I had an audition. It took me two hours toget there. I waited for an hour for my turn. And before I could even start they told me Ilooked too Midwest for the part10Analysis of Dialogue 3.3In this dialogue, Sheldon explains Penny’s situation by providing technical names of the different keys and locks. Further deduction of logic must be required to interpret his utterance, Penny mixed up the keys for her car and her apartment (lines 3-5). Sheldon flouts the maxim of manner because his descriptions of Penny’s predicament were unclear and long-winded. Sheldon is implying that Penny is foolish for jamming her car keys into the apartment lock.

Penny then expresses thanks to Sheldon in a sarcastic tone, since she does not really mean it (Line 6). This flouts the maxim of quality because Penny is saying something that she believes is not true. Sheldon then asks why Penny has placed her car keys in the door lock.

Penny does not specifically answer Sheldon’s question but tells Sheldon the reasons for her irritability and clumsiness (Line 9-11). Penny violates the maxim of relevance since she does not answer Sheldon’s question rather she introduces a new topic to explain her frustration.

[4.0 CONCLUSION]In conclusion, there are several objections to Grice’s maxims. They occasionally overlap one another, so it is not always a clear which maxims are being broken. In cases such as metaphor usage (see 3.0), it should be more precise to say that two or more maxims are being broken simultaneously. In addition, the various methods that break these maxims and the absence of addressing other conversational rules such as tact and politeness, serve as supporting evidence for one conclusion: Grice’s maxims are not absolute. They are mutually understood guidelines that form a conversational schema and interpretation can be made easier if everyone conforms to them. However, as we have seen, this is not the case.

In comedies, especially, directors make use of this conversational schema. These maxims are broken in situations such as sarcasm, irony, metaphors, and lies and so on to achieve humorous effects. The frequency and the unpredictability of how these maxims are broken can determine the success in situational comedies.


1.Davis, Wayne (1998). Implicature Intention convention and principle in the failure of Gricean Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press2.W. Littlejohn, Stephen (2002). Theories of Human Communication (Seventh edition). Asia: Tsinghua University Press3.Thomas, Jenny (1995). Meaning in Interaction: An introduction to Pragmatics (Learning about language). England: Longman Group Limited.

4.Robinson Douglas (2006). Introducing Performative Pragmatics. New York: Routledge5.Martinich, Aloysius (1984). Communication and Reference. Germany : Berlin6.Paltridge, Brian (2006). Discourse Analysis: An Introduction. Great Britain : Cornwall7.The Big Bang Theory Season 2-3. Executive Producers: Chuck Lorre Bill Prady Lee Aronsohn. Producers: Steve molaro mike Collier Faye Oshima Belyeu. Dir. James 3-2Burrows mark cendrowski. Starring: Johnny Galecki Jim Parsons Kaley Cuoco Simon Helberg Kunal Nayyar. CBS. USA. 22 September 2008 – may 2010.

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