The Cooperative Principle in Conversation

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Coworkers Having a Conversation

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

In conversation analysis, the cooperative principle is the assumption that participants in a conversation normally attempt to be informative, truthful, relevant, and clear.

The concept of the cooperative principle was introduced by philosopher H. Paul Grice in his article "Logic and Conversation" (Syntax and Semantics, 1975). In that article, Grice argued that "talk exchanges" aren't merely a "succession of disconnected remarks, and would not be rational if they did. They are characteristically, to some degree at least, cooperative efforts; and each participant recognizes in them, to some extent, a common purpose or set of purposes, or at least a mutually accepted direction." 

Examples and Observations

  • "We might then formulate a rough general principle which participants will be expected (ceteris paribus) to observe, namely: Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. One might label this the Cooperative Principle." (Paul Grice, "Logic and Conversation," 1975. Reprinted in Studies in the Way of Words. Harvard University Press, 1989)
  • "[T]he sum and substance of the Cooperative Principle might be put this way: Do whatever is necessary to achieve the purpose of your talk; don't do anything that will frustrate that purpose." (Aloysius Martinich, Communication and Reference. Walter de Gruyter, 1984)

Grice's Conversational Maxims

"[Paul] Grice fleshed out the cooperative principle in four conversational 'maxims,' which are commandments that people tacitly follow (or should follow) to further the conversation efficiently:

  • Say no less than the conversation requires.
  • Say no more than the conversation requires.
  • Don't say what you believe to be false.
  • Don't say things for which you lack evidence.
  • Don't be obscure.
  • Don't be ambiguous.
  • Be brief.
  • Be orderly.
  • Be relevant.

"People undoubtedly can be tight-lipped, long-winded, mendacious, cavalier, obscure, ambiguous, verbose, rambling, or off-topic. But on closer examination they are far less so than they could be, given the possibilities. . . . Because human hearers can count on some degree of adherence to the maxims, they can read between the lines, weed out unintended ambiguities, and connect the dots when they listen and read." (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought. Viking, 2007)

Cooperation vs. Agreeableness

  • "We need to make a distinction between communicatively cooperative and socially cooperative . . .. The 'Cooperative Principle' is not about being positive and socially 'smooth,' or agreeable. It is a presumption that when people speak, they intend and expect that they will communicate by doing so, and that the hearer will help at making this happen. When two people quarrel or have a disagreement, the Cooperative Principle still holds, even though the speakers may not be doing anything positive or cooperative. . . . Even if individuals are aggressive, self-serving, egotistic, and so on, and not quite focusing on the other participants of the interaction, they can't have spoken at all to someone else without expecting that something would come out of it, that there would be some result, and that the other person/s was/were engaged with them. That is what the Cooperative Principle is all about, and it certainly does have to continue to be considered as the main driving force in communication." (Istvan Kecskes, Intercultural Pragmatics. Oxford University Press, 2014)

    Jack Reacher's Telephone Conversation

    "The operator answered and I asked for Shoemaker and I got transferred, maybe elsewhere in the building, or the country, or the world, and after a bunch of clicks and hisses and some long minutes of dead air Shoemaker came on the line and said 'Yes?'

    "'This is Jack Reacher,' I said.

    "'Where are you?'

    "'Don't you have all kinds of automatic machines to tell you that?'

    "'Yes,' he said. 'You're in Seattle, on a pay phone down by the fish market. But we prefer it when people volunteer the information themselves. We find that makes the subsequent conversation go better. Because they're already cooperating. They're invested.'

    "'In what?'

    "The conversation.'

    "'Are we having a conversation?'

    "'Not really.'"

    (Lee Child, Personal. Delacorte Press, 2014)

    The Lighter Side of the Cooperative Principle

    Sheldon Cooper: I've been giving the matter some thought, and I think I'd be willing to be a house pet to a race of superintelligent aliens.​

    Leonard Hofstadter: Interesting.​

    Sheldon Cooper: Ask me why?​

    Leonard Hofstadter: Do I have to?​

    Sheldon Cooper: Of course. That's how you move a conversation forward.

    (Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki, "The Financial Permeability." The Big Bang Theory, 2009)