The politeness principle and its attendant maxims

Introductory notes:
  • The maxims in Leech's model go together with categories of speech acts (note the slightly terminology in Leech's model: assertives=representatives, directives=impositives). Declaratives do not involve politeness.
  • Each maxim is accompanied by a sub-maxim (between square brackets), which is of lesser importance. This reflects a more general law that negative politeness (avoidance of discord) is more important than positive politeness (seeking concord).
  • Not all of the maxims are equally important. For instance, "Tact" involves a more powerful constraint on conversational behaviour than does "Generosity", and "Approbation" is more important than "Modesty", at least, if we accept the general assumption that politeness is more other-oriented than on self-oriented.
  • Note also that speakers may adhere to more than one maxim of politeness at the same time. Often one maxim is on the forefront of the utterance, with a second maxim being invoked by implication. For instance, You're the expert when used to voice a request for action invokes first of all the Approbation-maxim, but the maxim of Modesty is simultaneously attended to by implication (as the speaker implicitly denies his/her ability to carry out the task at hand). In this respect, there is a major difference with the cooperative principle which is based on the assumption that all four maxims of information exchange are observed simultaneously. This is not the case with the Politeness Principle. In the absence of politeness being communicated, it must be assumed that the politeness attitude is absent.
Tact maxim (in impositives and commissives)
minimise cost to other
[maximise benefit to other]
From: Self <[account]>
To: [account]
Subject: ** Misano Adriatico **
Send reply to: [user]
Date sent: Fri, 16 May 1997 14:49:04

Hi [first name],

How is Vienna?


This message is partly on behalf of [first name + surname] (from [name]
University), whose organising a Research Seminar in Misano Adriatico
(Italy) which is to take place in September (26-27). He would like to invite
you as a discussant for a round table on multimedia translation
research (translation studies finally discovering the need for discourse

Let me give you a bit more background. [first name] is the coordinator for
the inter-university programme on translation studies here. It
involves Gent Univ, Leuven Univ and couple of higher institutes for
translation and interpretation. I run a course in the programme on
processes of translation and editing in the media - essentially dealing with
phenomena of discourse representation. I think that [first name] is gradually
getting convinced of the need for a reflexive, critical type of
discourse analysis within transl. studies (which, at the moment, is
almost entirely geared towards practical problem-solving models).
As I see it, this could entail more than introducing a discourse
perspective; there is also an important inroad from the study of the
globalisation of discursive practices, for instance, translation
practices as "intertextuality", which may be constitutive for the
development of domain-related genres in different "national"
contexts. Etc. Etc.

Anyway. Would you be interested in contributing to this event?
Travel and expenses will be paid for and, if you wish, you could
also give a plenary paper.

If you like, you can contact [initial + surname] directly. His e-mail
address is [account]@[name]

Take care! (I look forward to seeing you in Aston)

Bye for now,

[first name].

PS: I'll put a copy of the brochure in the post today.

Generosity maxim (in impositives and commissives)
minimise benefit to self
[maximise cost to self]
From: [first name + surname] <[account]>
To: [first name + surname] <[account]>
Date sent: Wed, 2 Apr 1997 15:02:46 GMT
Subject: Re: ** News ?? **
Priority: normal

Hi [first name]

Sorry for not responding so far. I have in fact read through the
paper and have made all sorts of comments. The drag is to insert
these in the file, which I was hoping to do this morning. The ideal
thing would be to do a telnet chat, if it were to be possible. But
since you are at home, I'll do the insertion and send you the file
before leaving for home. That's a promise.
The key board feels
strange after the break... We had a wonderful time in Devon. We
stayed in a village called Moretonhampstead and from there took short
excursions to Torquay, Paignton, Plymouth etc. [name child] enjoyed the day
with the ponies. And the waeather was simply brilliant. So, you can
imagine the disorientation on the first day back at work. Also, I had
to sort out my travel arrnagements this morning - only two more
working days to go!

How are you all? Hope you had good break too.


[first name]

Approbation maxim (in expressives and assertives)
minimise dispraise of other
[maximise praise of other]
Date sent: Thu, 29 May 1997 11:31:38 +0200 (MET DST)
From: [first name + surname] <[account]>
To: [first name + surname] <[account]@CompuServe.COM>
Subject: Re: [Surname] web site

Hi [first name],

Good to hear from you. I've just had a quick look at your webpages.
Looks good!!


Bye for now,

[first name].

Modesty maxim (in expressives and assertives)
minimise praise of self
[maximise dispraise of self]
Date sent: 13 Jan 97 05:30:28 EST
From: [first name + surname] <[account]@CompuServe.COM>
To: [first name] <[account]>
Subject: Books arrives

Hi [first name]
It seems to have taken an age to get here in the post from Belgium - even though
it's all down hill from you to us - but it's finally arrived. Many thanks for
the dedication! I feel quite envious of you having a _hardback_ book!

I'm rushing around getting ready for Mexico - off on Thursday , but email as

Love to all the young 'uns, and the missus.

Agreement maxim (in assertives)
minimise disagreement between self and other
[maximise agreement between self and other]
From: [account]
Date sent: Mon, 14 Oct 1996 08:46:20 +1200
Subject: Re: ** D&S - article **
To: [account]

Dear [first name]:

Thank you very much indeed for your comments. You are quite right about
ideologies of work and accumulation in the capitalist system.
I wish you
had read the draft!

What kind of work do you do?


[first name + surname]

>Dear [first name + surname],

>Just a brief message to let you know that I very much enjoyed
>reading your recent article in D&S.
>I particularly liked the discussion of agency!
>One minor comment: perhaps you could also have explored some of
>the links between the discourses of welfare and ideologies of work
>and accumulation in the capitalist system.
>With kind regards,
>[first name + surname]

Sympathy maxim (in assertives)
minimise antipathy between self and other
[maximise sympathy between self and other]
Date sent: Tue, 20 Oct 1998 14:19:37 +1100
To: [first name + surname] <[user]>
From: [first name + surname] <[account]>
Subject: Re: ** SS - referee report **

Thanks [first name], would be interested in the second conference on your list,
hope you are well, busy as hell like all of us of course!!! all the best,
and thanks for the report, regards, [first name]

Based on G. Leech (1983 LEECH Geoffrey, 1983, The Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman. ). All examples have been drawn from e-mail messages.