Language Lounge

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Mr. Grice, Meet Mr. Miranda

Since neither the law nor any representation of the law is possible without language, language becomes a necessary medium of the law, and law-as-language a necessary representation or account of it.

—Stefano Bertea in The Normative Claim of Law

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Miranda v. Arizona. The decision, handed down on June 13, 1966, ushered vocabulary into American English that is in nearly everyone's lexicon today, including Miranda Rights, Miranda Warnings, and even the verb mirandize, which means "recite the Miranda warnings (to a person under arrest)". You can shop online for a Miranda card (English on the front, Spanish on the back), which many police officers carry with them as an aide-mémoire.

The constitutional question at issue in Miranda was: Do the Fifth Amendment's protections against self-incrimination extend to the police interrogation of a suspect? The court's answer, in a 5-4 decision, was "yes," and the ramifications of that decision include the necessity that arrestees be warned of their rights before they can be interrogated. Americans and English speakers everywhere, even the majority who have never been arrested, are probably familiar with Miranda warnings from dramatizations, and even with riffs on them, like this one:

Despite its exploitation by hack screenwriters as a cheap plot device, the legacy of the Miranda case has been a topic of serious conversation that has never gone out of fashion since the controversial decision became law. Several other Supreme Court cases have called the wisdom of Miranda into question, while also tweaking its provisions in various ways.

Nearly 10 years after Miranda, philosopher of language Paul Grice began to develop his theory of conversational implicature and the Gricean Maxims that are part and parcel of it. Grice's seminal contribution to the field was his observation that ordinary conversation is a cooperative enterprise. As such, it is governed by the principle that contributions to conversation should facilitate the purpose of the particular exchange—a purpose that is generally understood and shared by participants. The genius of Grice in formulating his maxims is that they are easily applicable to any conversation: he inferred rules about conversation that we all follow (most of the time), even though we are never formally taught these rules. The maxims are:

  1. The maxim of quantity, where one tries to be as informative as one possibly can, and gives as much information as is needed, and no more.

  2. The maxim of quality, where one tries to be truthful, and does not give information that is false or that is not supported by evidence.

  3. The maxim of relation, where one tries to be relevant, and says things that are pertinent to the discussion.

  4. The maxim of manner, when one tries to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and where one avoids obscurity and ambiguity.

When violations of Gricean Maxims occur, there are any number of explanations for them, but very common ones are a mismatch of perceptions or agendas among participants in the conversation.

Miranda warnings, and what may or may not follow from them, present interesting material for a look at Gricean conversation in action because they are a situation in which speech is obligatory (on the part of an arresting officer) but not likely to be cooperative (on the part of the detainee). The participants in a conversation begun by Miranda warnings are hardly likely to share a common purpose—indeed, it is more likely that they will be at cross purposes—and so it is to be expected that Gricean maxim violations will occur at nearly every turn.

All of the important speech events surrounding a modern arrest—declaration of arrest, Miranda warnings, interrogation, denial or confession—are speech acts. A speech act is the performance of an act through speech. Scholarly research about speech acts was more or less contemporaneous with the Miranda decision and continues today. For our purposes it's worth noting that a Miranda warning is a performative speech act—one in which saying it's so makes it so. A Miranda warning changes the reality of the situation. Together with the arrest itself, the warning changes the situation from one in which the normal cooperative rules of conversation might apply to one in which they almost certainly will not. A successfully executed Miranda warning utterly changes the significance of any speech on the part of the arrestee and should have the effect of making him speak only with great caution.

So what goes down in a Mirandizing situation from a Gricean point of view? Let's start at the beginning. A police officer, having found grounds for arresting an individual, is then obliged by law to recite (in many cases, actually read from a Miranda card) the Miranda warnings. This is an illocutionary act—that is, one with a communicative effect that explicitly warns the arrestee of consequences, and it adheres to every single maxim perfectly, giving precise, concise, and truthful information. Once an arrestee has indicated understanding of the warnings (also an important and defining speech act, and one that follows Gricean rules), police officers may proceed with interrogation.

Here's a portion of a police interrogation, starting with the Miranda warnings, of a woman who was eventually convicted of murder:

You certainly don't need a degree in linguistics to note that this conversation is not a normal one, proceeding along ordinary lines. There is an appearance of cooperation on both sides: a calm, even soothing tone of voice from the police officer, and an apparent readiness of the suspect to answer questions. But the Gricean Maxims fall by the wayside early on, and are hardly thereafter revived. The police officer gives very low quality information early on about whether the session is being recorded, by deflecting the suspect's attention from the actual recording apparatus and diverting to the portable voice recorders in the room that are not turned on. The suspect (if you care to watch for more than a minute or two of the eight hours that follow) is distinctly un-Gricean in everything she says: she often provides far more information than is useful or relevant, it is often untruthful (as emerged during her trial), her speech is often irrelevant with regard to the question that preceded it, and it is rarely clear, brief, or orderly.

Justice Byron White, one of the dissenters in Miranda who wrote his own opinion, believed that because of the obligatory Miranda warnings, "the Court's rule will return a killer, a rapist or other criminal to the streets and to the environment which produced him, to repeat his crime whenever it pleases him." This has undoubtedly happened during the fifty years that Miranda has been in effect, but from a pragmatic point of view it is a challenge to make an argument against the warnings. In most cases it seems likely that they have exactly the effect intended: to signal a wholesale change to the normal rules of conversation and an effective suspension of everything that a Gricean conversationalist should expect.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 1st 2016, 2:10 AM
Comment by: Craig J.
It's easy to make a challenge against the warnings from a pragmatic point of view. Judge White is quoted as writing that "the Court's rule will return a killer, rapist, or other criminal to the repeat his crime whenever it pleases him." You agree this has undoubtedly been the case. Pragmatism is what works, and a society that frees criminals, and particularly violent criminals, as a consequence of procedural errors rather than known facts regarding their guilt or innocence, and that discourages field confessions, is one that does not work as well as it should. The authorities in that society also punt on the golden rule by failing to respect the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of future victims in the interest of playing self-righteous games with suspects, which those victims most likely would declare unpragmatic; after all, it didn't work for them.
Wednesday June 1st 2016, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I've been trying to get my head around Gricean Maxims since I first started reading about them. For example, Gretchen McCulloch has an interesting article on Slate the invokes Gricean Maxims to try to explain the humor behind an odd visual joke:

"Look at All These Ducks There Are at Least Ten." Why Is This Funny?

I think you note something about the maxims that I've been wondering about: they describe conversation in contexts where there is a mutual desire to be, what, efficient. But as you point out, there are many contexts in which speech acts have different purposes, overt or covert. It hadn't occurred to me to think of it in legal terms, but one of the reasons that legalese is so dense must be that there's a presumption that one or both of the parties will NOT be subscribing to the Gricean principles--for example, the maxim of quantity is (?) violated somewhat because of the loose definition of "as much as is needed, but no more." However, I am subexpert in the areas of both linguistics and law. :-)

There are also perhaps less adversarial contexts in which the maxims don't obtain, I imagine--humor, for example, which almost by definition relies on not being as efficient as possible. And then there's this great observation by the physicist Paul Dirac which seems somehow relevant to thinking about Gricean Maxims:

"In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite."
Friday June 3rd 2016, 8:25 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Craig J: point taken, I should have noted that in saying "pragmatic" I meant it in the linguistic, not the general sense: i.e., " the analysis of language in terms of the situational context within which utterances are made, including the knowledge and beliefs of the speaker and the relation between speaker and listener."

Mike: agreed, many conversations and conversational situations arise regularly in which the maxims are not observed. I think the genius and durability of them is that you can always determine what is odd, nonstandard, or specialized about a conversation by reference to the maxims. In a normal social situation, when someone says something that is "out of line" or raises some kind of red flag, it is always a maxim violation.

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