Defense against Speech Acts (Pragmatics and Poetry)

Okay, okay. I won’t get off that easily. Let’s put all that linguistic theory on the backburner and ask a different question: How can you use this in your creative work? What’s this have to do with poetry?

The notion of implicature and speech acts is perhaps important when understanding performance and delivery. These are terms you hear most often in theatre, but they’re important also to poetry reciting and writing true-to-life dialogue.

I encourage you to Zoogmalion, watch a short 15-minute play I wrote and directed (a little bit of self-promotion, eh?). Try and see when one of the Gricean maxims is broken. In other words, look for when the actors’ word don’t literally mean what they want to say.


Here are just a few examples:

Well, yes, I AM a Doelotte!

Lizzy Doelotte (1)

Why don’t we try nailing down some sounds?

Harry (2)

There’s [a Doelotte’s Daisies] by Stirling Castle, actually…

Lizzy Doelotte (3)

Well, I’m sure that was a big problem for ye…

Harry (4)

The English always love to complain about the weather.

Harry (5)

Can you see how these lines don’t mean what they say? In (1), Lizzy’s response is not really affirming her last name as nobody asked her, rather she’s pointing out the pun in her name (do-a-lot, as opposed to do-little). Both characters have lines like (2) where they ask a question which is really more of a request or an offer, neither one is really interested into why X might not happen. With the snide comment in (3), Lizzy communicates to Harry that she knows about Stirling Castle (in the beginning he guessed she had no idea about it). Harry’s observation (5) is actually a tease towards Lizzy that she’s just making excuses.

All of these are breaking the RELATION maxim, they are seemingly off-topic comments which actually contribute to some other meaning outside of their content. This is usually the most common type of Gricean maxim. The one sarcastic line (4) is a breaking of the QUALITY maxim as Harry is openly saying the opposite of what he thinks. You could also argue it’s flaunting MANNER since sarcasm tends to be delivered with a different tone (although, in my experience, some Americans don’t change their tone at all when sarcastic…).

I hope you learned something new today! This is certainly something we do much more intuitively than systematically, but I hope these ideas will help you frame and think of your own writing differently. Even though I compared it to magic earlier, it’s easier than casting spells. Pay attention to how you talk with your friends/family and you’re bound to notice some pragmatic black magic.


Once ready, you will be able to find a post-mortem link about the play Zoogmalion on Theatre Paradok’s website.

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