Human expression is open-ended, versatile and diverse, ranging from ordinary language use to painting, from exaggerated displays of affection to micro-movements that aid coordination. Here we present and defend the claim that this expressive diversity is united by an interrelated suite of cognitive capacities, the evolved functions of which are the expression and recognition of informative intentions. We describe how evolutionary dynamics normally leash communication to narrow domains of statistical mutual benefit, and how they are unleashed in humans. The relevant cognitive capacities are cognitive adaptations to living in a partner choice social ecology; and they are, correspondingly, part of the ordinarily developing human cognitive phenotype, emerging early and reliably in ontogeny. In other words, we identify distinctive features of our species’ social ecology to explain how and why humans, and only humans, evolved the cognitive capacities that, in turn, lead to massive diversity and open-endedness in means and modes of expression. Language use is but one of these modes of expression, albeit one of manifestly high importance. We make cross-species comparisons, describe how the relevant cognitive capacities can evolve in a gradual manner, and survey how unleashed expression facilitates not only language use but novel behaviour in many other domains too, focusing on the examples of joint action, teaching, punishment and art, all of which are ubiquitous in human societies but relatively rare in other species. Much of this diversity derives from graded aspects of human expression, which can be used to satisfy informative intentions in creative and new ways. We aim to help reorient cognitive pragmatics, as a phenomenon that is not a supplement to linguistic communication and on the periphery of language science, but rather the foundation of the many of the most distinctive features of human behaviour, society and culture.