An Analysis Of The Use Of Cooperation Principle Maxims In “The Big Bang Theory”


This seminar is a study of the conversational implicature and the use of Cooperation Principle maxims in a TV Show called “Big Bang Theory”, a well-known American sitcom (that I have been watching for years now). The show aired its first episode on 24th September 2007, has released 11 seasons so far and its 12th season is currently being filmed. This show was purposely chosen for the analysis on this paper because of numerous reasons. Firstly, the show possesses a very interesting and complex script where the language is everything but ordinary.

The main characters (7 in total) come from very different linguistic backgrounds and this, rather often, causes difficulties in having a proper conversation (being able to utter a complete structural unit and being able to understand and interpret the meaning of the received sentence). Secondly, a great difference in the language each character uses is easily noted. There are two physicists (Leonard Hofstadter, an experimental physicist and Dr. Sheldon Cooper BS, MS, MA, PhD, and ScD a theoretical physicist), a neurobiologist (Amy Farrah Fowler), an aerospace engineer (Howard Wolowitz), an astrophysicist (Rajesh “Raj”Ramayan Koothrappali), a microbiologist (Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz) 2 and an actress who later becomes a pharmaceutical sales representative (Penny Hofstadter).

The language a physicist uses differs to a large extent to the one used by a neurobiologist, or an actress, for instance. Having conversations in which the listeners find themselves not receiving the message properly or the speakers not being able to contribute properly to the interaction is just an ongoing occurrence in the show. This provides a linguist with a great deal of possibility to analyze the maxims of Cooperation Principle. Finally, the last reason for choosing this particular show is the attempt to prove that difficulties in inferring what was implied and in communicating in general can be mitigated when time passes in the relationship between the speakers; and the speakers and listeners start to get familiar with the others’ style of speaking, transmitting a message and so on. “Big Bang Theory” has a great popularity with viewers from all around the world and its language and humor are predominantly easily understood by an average audience.

This, however, depends on the background of the audience; and the more the viewer is familiar with the American culture, the more likely they will be to grasp the ideas conveyed in the show. A great role here plays also the viewer’s knowledge on the scientific fields that are part of the show (physics, astronomy, biology and neuroscience) and information on the famous Superhero movies and Comic books. The Cooperation Principles come in handy when analyzing the language of this show, since the background of the viewers is a crucial factor in the transmission of the maxims (relevance and quality). One particular character that will in some cases be the focus of the analysis is Sheldon, who is a genius, but who lacks proper communications skills. He is the perfect example of a speaker/listener who will almost never respect and speak accordingly to the maxims of the Cooperation Principles, thus giving vague and ambiguous answers and sometimes sounding like he is not making sense at all.

Research Question

Which Cooperation Principle maxims are neglected and which are respected more in conversations in the show?

Methological Design

A language was conducted using the scripts of the show and also video (to take the body language into consideration as well). Cooperation between speakers and listeners and Conversational Implicature in the interactions carried out in the show were studied. The focus was put on the compliance of the conversations analyzed with the maxims of the Cooperation Principle, i. e. Quantity, Quality, Relation and Manner. As mentioned in the beginning, a special focus was put on conversations carried out by or with the character of Sheldon, since he is the most interesting character and he has the biggest communication problems with others. This may be a consequence of the style of life that he has lived until he met his roommate and university colleagues/friends. He is a genius who has spent his life studying and endeavoring to advance in science that he almost loses his ability to interact with others in a normal manner and carry out a conversation that is meaningful or explicit.

Literature review

The study of conversational implicature has experienced significant developments, especially after Levinson’s Pragmatics (1983), Barbara Johnstone’s Discourse Analysis (2008), Paul Grices’s William James lectures at Harvard University and his 1975 and 1989 publications on Conversational Implicature. Conversational implicature is a highly contextual form of language use that has a lot in common with non-linguistic behavior (Patric Blackburn & Luciana Benotti, 2014). Because every conversation or interaction carried out by people involves the Cooperative Principle, Grice’s maxims of conversation and body language (together with other external factors), it is undisputable that conversation implicature is significantly related to the way humans act and how humans interpret meaning. The predominant from of studying how meaning is interpreted by the participants in a conversation is by studying Conversational Implicature. H. P. Grice (1975) is the linguist to refer to at first when talking about conversational implicature, since he suggested that people interpret indirect meaning by orienting to a set of broad shared conventions about what to expect from others in conversation. Grice put light on the Cooperative Principle or CP and its four maxims that are used and studied in the endeavors to understand how an efficient conversational exchange is achieved (Johnstone, 2008).

An outline of Cooperation Principles and the maxims is presented below (Grice P. , 1989) and the study of this paper will be carried out in a parallel pace with and based on the application of these maxims in conversation. 6 Maxims of Quantity: (i) Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange). (ii) Do not make your contribution more informative than is required. Maxims of Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true. (i) Do not say what you believe to be false. (ii) Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence. The Maxim of Relevance: (i) Be relevant. Maxims of Manner: Be perspicuous. (i) Avoid obscurity. (ii) Avoid ambiguity. (iii) Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). (iv) Be orderly In other words, the author suggests that speakers expect from the other to make a proper and sufficient contribution to the conversation, to not say more or less than necessary, to always be on topic and finally, to be precise and pedant when expressing an opinion.

These conventions make it possible for two (or more) speakers to have a meaningful conversation where what the other has said is rather easy to interpret. However, as we will see in this paper, this is not always the case, not to say rarely. Speakers find themselves rather often in situations where they are unable to interpret the meaning of what the other has said and therefore the conversation and its contributions lose their meaning. In numerous cases, a crucial role plays the relationship between the speakers. If the speakers, for instance, have known each other for a long time, the maxims of conversation start to be used properly, or at least more than in the beginning.

Conversational Implicature analysis

In their paper, Blackburn and Benotti invite the reader to view conversational implicature as a way of negotiating meaning in conversational contexts (Patric Blackburn & Luciana Benotti, 2014). In the example below [1] the character of Penny sits on the couch in a place where the character of Sheldon claims to be his spot and Sheldon starts demanding that Penny moves away from his spot. Penny and Sheldon exchange contributions to the conversation and try to negotiate meaning, but there is a ubiquitous obstacle in understanding and inferring what the other is trying to say. This happens primarily because the characters have just met each other 8 and Penny is not aware of Sheldon’s way of doing things and vice versa; therefore, Penny does not yield to Sheldon’s demand, but instead asks for further explanation: [1] Sheldon: Um, Penny, that’s where I sit. Penny: So, sit next to me. Sheldon: No, I sit there. Penny: What’s the difference? Sheldon: What’s the DIFFERENCE??? In winter that seat is close enough to the radiator to remain warm, and yet not so close as to cause perspiration. In the summer it’s directly in the path of a cross breeze created by open windows there, and there. It faces the television at an angle that is neither direct, thus discouraging conversation, nor so far wide to create a parallax distortion, I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

As mentioned above, respecting and acting accordingly to the maxims of conversation is impossible in this case. That is because people who have lived with Sheldon for a long time would understand what the situation was instantly after the first sentence was uttered (or maybe after having just been given a certain look by Sheldon). But Penny, who only 1 Big Bang Theory transcripts – Series 01 Episode 1 – Pilot episode 9 knows Sheldon for a couple of minutes here, is unable to interpret the meaning behind Sheldon’s utterance “Penny, that’s where I sit”, therefore the maxims of quantity, manner and, by the end, relation are violated. After an analysis of the script, examples are found, almost in each episode, that indicate the violation of each maxim of Cooperation Principle and an analysis of the examples in conversations from different episodes of the sitcom is presented below: Maxim of quantity We have a conversation here in example [2], set at the university canteen where the characters (Sheldon, Leonard, Raj and Howard) usually have lunch together. One of the characters, Raj, needs ketchup and there isn’t any in their table. [2] Raj: Sheldon, is there ketchup on that table? Sheldon: Yes, there is. … Here’s a fun fact. Ketchup started out as a general term for sauce, typically made of mushrooms or fish brine with herbs and spices. Some popular early main ingredients included: blueberry, anchovy, oyster, kidney bean and grape. 10 Raj: No, that’s okay. I’ll get it myself.

In this example we have Raj who is merely trying to ask Sheldon to bring him ketchup from the other table next to them. He uses indirect language and asks first if there’s any ketchup on the other table. Now, what Sheldon does not do is comply with the Maxim of quantity, i. e. to not make a contribution that is more informative than is required.

Normally when a speaker, in this case Raj, asks if there’s ketchup on the table next to them, one would say “Yes, there is. ” and bring the ketchup to their friend. But what Sheldon does is completely ignore the request behind the question and just continues with an interesting fact about ketchup, leaving Raj with the only option of standing up and going to get the ketchup himself. The Maxim of Quantity is violated and therefore the act of responding to a friend’s request does not take place. Maxim of quality In example [3] we have a conversation that takes place in Leonard’s room, where he is getting ready and wants to sneak out. He asks Sheldon to lie to their friends if they ask him where Leonard went. Now, a prerequisite here would be Sheldon being able to lie to others, 2 Big Bang Theory transcripts – Series 03 Episode 17 – The precious Fragmentation 11 but since Sheldon is a really peculiar person, he is terrified by the simple act of having to lie or keeping a secret. [3] Sheldon: Leonard, but if someone… does ask where you’ve gone, what should I say? Leonard: I don’t know. Just tell them I went to the office. Sheldon: Are you going to the office? Leonard: No. Sheldon: Well, how can I say it convincingly? (outraged) This would’ve worked a lot better if you just told me you were going to the office. Leonard: OK. Sheldon, I’m going to the office. Sheldon: See, why don’t I believe you?!3 Here it can be noticed that Sheldon is asked to lie, but he is reluctant to do so. He faces turmoil about having to lie, i. e. to violate the Maxim of Quality (Do not say what you believe to be false).

Now that Leonard (after seeing that his request cannot be met by Sheldon) tries to lie to Sheldon as well, but not the contribution has lost the credibility and therefore does 3 Big Bang Theory transcripts – Series 02 Episode 08 – The Lizard-Spock Expansion 12 not comply with the Maxim of Quality. This conversational exchange is not successful because not both speakers are aware of the deviation from the Cooperation Principle. Maxim of relevance In the next example [4], we witness a conversation that takes place in the hall, where Penny is having problems opening the door of her apartment and when Sheldon hears the noise, he comes out of his apartment and talks to Penny. [4] Sheldon: Penny, are you experiencing some sort of difficulty? Penny: Yes, I can’t get my door open. Sheldon: You appear to put your car key in the door lock. Are you aware of that? Penny: Yeah! I can’t get the key out. Sheldon: It’s not surprising. That Baldwin lock on your door uses traditional edge mounted cylinders, whereas the key for your Volkswagen a center cylinder system. 13 Penny: (annoyed) Thank you, Sheldon.

In this case when one of the speakers (Penny) is experiencing a difficulty and is clearly extremely annoyed, the other speaker (Sheldon) approaches with, what it looks like, a willingness to help in some way. So far, so good. From here, the conversation begins to lose its meaning; Sheldon, instead of trying to help in any way, starts explaining thoroughly Penny why the key she has accidentally put in the lock (her car key) does not fit in the lock, and therefore is stuck. This part is completely irrelevant in the situation where the speaker is only interested in ideas on how to get the key out; therefore, the maxim of Relevance is flouted. Below is another example where one of the speakers provides the other speaker with information that is not relevant to any scale. [5] Penny: Why I’m so angry? I’ll tell you why. Because today I had an audition, it took me two hours to get there, I waited an hour for my turn, and before I could even start they told me I looked too Midwest for the part. Too Midwest? What does that even mean?? Sheldon: Well, the American Midwest was mostly settled by Scandinavian and Germanic peoples who, well they have a characteristic facial bone structure…. Big Bang Theory transcripts – Series 02 Episode 03 – The Barbarian Sublimation 14 Penny: I know what it means, Sheldon!5 Penny is mad and disappointed after having been rejected in an acting audition. Sheldon does not contribute with any information in the form of consolation or empathy, but rather with irrelevant information about what the word “Midwest” means.

Maxim of manner: Finally, to study the use of the Maxim of Manner, we have a conversation between Leonard and Sheldon. Leonard is miserable after an embarrassment that he went through and is sitting and thinking. [6] Leonard: What’s that? Sheldon: Tea. When people are upset, the cultural convention is to bring them hot beverages… (pats Leonard on the back) There, there…! Do you want to talk about it? Leonard: No. Sheldon: Good. “There, there” was really all I had. 6 5 Big Bang Theory transcripts – Series 02 Episode 03 – The Barbarian Sublimation 6 Big Bang Theory transcripts – Series 01 Episode 06 – The Middle Earth Paradigm 15 Here we have the situation of one speaker not being able to act fittingly in the case when the other speaker is in distress. Sheldon offers tea in the most insensitive and cold manner, explaining why he is doing it. As stated in the Maxim of Manner, the way we say things is very important as well, and the speaker should know how to show empathy when needed, how to console the other speaker when needed, and so on.


The Big Bang Theory sitcom offers a great deal of possibility for analysis of language and pragmatics. Conversational implicature in this show was the focus of this study. This approach was narrowed down to the use of 4 Maxims of conversation that are the outline of Cooperation Principle, studied for the first time by H. P. Grice. The presence of the Maxim of Quality, Quantity, Relevance and Matter were studied in chosen conversations from the show’s transcript. The outcome of this analysis, as seen in the examples and their analyses above, is as was expected in the beginning of the study.

The characters in the show (for different, abovementioned, reasons) face problems in communication, for the simple reason of not being aware of the existence of these maxims and therefore, not respecting them to the core. Proper conversation is not these people’s strongest point. Sheldon, especially, is a person 16 who, although a genius in his field, lacks the ability to contribute to an interaction to a satisfactory degree. Nevertheless, Grice argues that the Maxims of conversation are a “rough general principle” and that they are his way of attempting to understand the way humans communicate (Patric Blackburn & Luciana Benotti, 2014). His study has been questioned by linguists with the idea that these maxims are a bit too strict and too concise. Grice, however, justifies his study by suggesting that he is not trying to say that all human conversations and interactions should be carried out based solely on these maxims. He claims that he is trying to indicate the existence of deep-seated norms of conversational interaction.

18 May 2020
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