Talking Together: An Introduction to Conversation Analysis

Fifteen Key Concepts and Eight Classic Essays

conversation analysis
"It is all right to hold a conversation," said Richard Armour, "but you should let go of it now and then.". (Beata Szpura/Getty Images)
Though a man succeeds, he should not (as is frequently the case) engross the whole talk to himself; for that destroys the very essence of conversation, which is talking together .
(William Cowper, "On Conversation," 1756)

In recent years, the related fields of discourse analysis and conversation analysis have deepened our understanding of the ways in which language is used in everyday life. Research in these fields has also widened the focus of other disciplines, including rhetoric and composition studies.

To acquaint you with these fresh approaches to language study, we've put together a list of 15 key concepts related to the ways we talk. All of them are explained and illustrated in our Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms, where you'll find a name for . . .

  1. the assumption that participants in a conversation normally attempt to be informative, truthful, relevant, and clear: cooperative principle
  2. the manner in which an orderly conversation normally takes place: turn-taking
  3. a type of turn-taking in which the second utterance (for example, "Yes, please") depends on the first ("Would you like some coffee?"): adjacency pair
  4. a noise, gesture, word, or expression used by a listener to indicate that he or she is paying attention to a speaker: back-channel signal
  5. a face-to-face interaction in which one speaker talks at the same time as another speaker to show an interest in the conversation: cooperative overlap
  1. speech that repeats, in whole or in part, what has just been said by another speaker: echo utterance
  2. a speech act that expresses concern for others and minimizes threats to self-esteem: politeness strategies
  3. the conversational convention of casting an imperative statement in question or declarative form (such as "Would you pass me the potatoes?") to communicate a request without causing offense: whimperative
  1. a particle (such as oh, well, you know, and I mean) that's used in conversation to make speech more coherent but that generally adds little meaning: discourse marker
  2. a filler word (such as um) or a cue phrase (let's see) used to mark a hesitation in speech: editing term
  3. the process by which a speaker recognizes a speech error and repeats what has been said with some sort of correction: repair
  4. the interactive process by which speakers and listeners work together to ensure that messages are understood as intended: conversational grounding
  5. meaning that's implied by a speaker but not explicitly expressed: conversational implicature
  6. the small talk that often passes for conversation at social gatherings: phatic communication
  7. a style of public discourse that simulates intimacy by adopting features of informal, conversational language: conversationalization

You'll find examples and explanations of these and over 1,500 other language-related expressions in our ever-expanding Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms.

Classic Essays on Conversation

While conversation has only recently become an object of academic study, our conversational habits and quirks have long been of interest to essayists.

(Not surprising if we accept the notion that the essay itself may be regarded as a conversation between writer and reader.)

To take part in this ongoing conversation about conversation, follow the links to these eight classic essays.

  1. The Musical Instruments of Conversation, by Joseph Addison (1710)
    "I must not here omit the bagpipe species, that will entertain you from morning to night with the repetition of a few notes which are played over and over, with the perpetual humming of a drone running underneath them. These are your dull, heavy, tedious, story-tellers, the load and burden of conversations."
  2. Of Conversation: An Apology, by H.G. Wells (1901)
    "These conversationalists say the most shallow and needless of things, impart aimless information, simulate interest they do not feel, and generally impugn their claim to be considered reasonable creatures. . . . This pitiful necessity we are under, upon social occasions, to say something—however inconsequent—is, I am assured, the very degradation of speech."
  1. Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation, by Jonathan Swift (1713)
    "This degeneracy of conversation, with the pernicious consequences thereof upon our humours and dispositions, hath been owing, among other causes, to the custom arisen, for sometime past, of excluding women from any share in our society, further than in parties at play, or dancing, or in the pursuit of an amour."
  2. Conversation, by Samuel Johnson (1752)
    "No style of conversation is more extensively acceptable than the narrative. He who has stored his memory with slight anecdotes, private incidents, and personal peculiarities, seldom fails to find his audience favourable."
  3. On Conversation, by William Cowper (1756)
    "We should try to keep up conversation like a ball bandied to and fro from one to the other, rather than seize it all to ourselves, and drive it before us like a football."
  4. Child's Talk, by Robert Lynd (1922)
    "One's ordinary conversation seems so far beneath the level of a small child. To say to it, 'What wonderful weather we've been having!' would seem an outrage. The child would merely stare.
  5. Talking About Our Troubles, by Mark Rutherford (1901)
    "[A]s a rule, we should be very careful for our own sake not to speak much about what distresses us. Expression is apt to carry with it exaggeration, and this exaggerated form becomes henceforth that under which we represent our miseries to ourselves, so that they are thereby increased."
  6. Disintroductions by Ambrose Bierce (1902)
    "[W]hat I am affirming is the horror of the characteristic American custom of promiscuous, unsought and unauthorized introductions. You incautiously meet your friend Smith in the street; if you had been prudent you would have remained indoors. Your helplessness makes you desperate and you plunge into conversation with him, knowing entirely well the disaster that is in cold storage for you."

These essays on conversation can be found in our large collection of Classic British and American Essays and Speeches.