The Art of Conversation

Have you ever heard the question “Would you like a tea or a coffee” answered with a simple “Yes”? If so, the respondent almost certainly considers their response to be extremely witty. The questioner is unlikely to agree. There is also a high probability that the joker is someone’s Dad…or perhaps a mathematician.

I have to admit to having indulged in this “joke” in my time (more than once), but until recently it had not occurred to me that it in fact reflects a violation of a general principle of conversation. Enlightenment came when I read the seminal 1975 paper “Logic and Conversation” [1] by the philosopher H.P.Grice.

The humour (or lack thereof) of the coffee/tea gag lies in the conflict between the logical truth of the statement and its inappropriateness in conversation. While the statement “A or B” is logically true as long as at least one of A and B is true , in the context of conversation, logical truth is not enough. If you knew A was true and B was false, you would not bother saying “A or B”, you would just say “A”. Moreover, that is what others would expect of you. If I ask you to pass me a hammer, I don’t expect you to pass me a hammer and a spanner. In the same way, if you know you are going to Spain for your holidays, I don’t expect you to say “I’m either going to Spain or Canada”, despite the fact that, strictly speaking, it is a true statement. It is this distinction between simple logical truth and appropriateness in conversation that is the subject of Grice’s paper.

Grice bases his ideas on the notion of the “Cooperative Principle”, which he summarises as the requirement to

Make your conversation 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.

People have conversations of many types for many reasons: to do business, to gossip, to seduce, to educate, to inform or simply for the pleasure of conversation itself. In every case, conversation involves (at least) two participants and the conversations that work best are the ones that take the needs of all of the participants into account. So it makes sense that a bit of cooperation is the foundation of a good conversation.

Based on the cooperative principle, Grice goes on to postulate a number of “maxims of conversation”. Here are the maxims as he describes them:


  1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.


  1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
  2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.


  1. Be relevant.


  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.

The term “maxim” is carefully chosen as Grice notes that one need not follow all of the maxims at all times, while still being cooperative. The main reason that a maxim could be violated is if it is in conflict with another maxim. An example would be providing less information than required (violating Quantity 1) because you are not confident you have the facts right (and you don’t want to violate Quality 2).

Viewed in terms of Grice’s maxims, the coffee/tea joke is a clear violation of the first maxim of quantity.

As I have already admitted to this particular breach, the obvious question is: have I violated any other maxims? Some who know me well would take the view that, while I may take pains to avoid a violation of either of the maxims of quality, I regularly and flagrantly violate Quantity 2 and Manner 3 and probably Relation 1. I need to learn to stick to the point or risk being branded an uncooperative conversationalist! Or perhaps it’s too late.

[1] Available in the collection “Studies in the Way of Words” by H.P.Grice.

Possibly Related Posts (automatically generated):

17 thoughts on “The Art of Conversation

  1. cafedave

    Great work on the subtle rebuke for this particular Dad joke.

    I’d always been irritated by that kind of logically correct answer, but you’ve given a much better explanation of why this is in poor form, and how to explain conversation to people.

  2. Senexx

    Would you like tea or coffee?
    Whilst the options provided ask for an either/or answer, the fact that both was proffered mean both are available. If someone seriously answered ‘yes’, it would clearly imply that they want both.

  3. Marco aka Cracticus

    Hey Stubborn,

    Frankly, I don’t believe I have ever received a “yes” as an answer to the question: “Would you like coffee or tea?”.

    However, if that were to happen, I would probably serve the option I thought was the least preferred… ;D

    On a more (only slightly so, I hasten to add) serious note: the items described under Manner seem a bit… ambiguous and lacking precision.

    What does Grice say about personal conversations (where there are all sorts of non-verbal clues) as opposed to written exchanges (where these clues are missing)?

  4. Stubborn Mule Post author

    Marco I think that your approach represents a fair punishment for the would-be joker. As for your comments on the Manner maxims, to be fair to Grice, it is all spelled out in more detail in the paper. Nevertheless, adding “avoid unnecesarily prolixity” to 3 seems unnecessarily prolix! Furthermore, in introducing the Manner maxims, he notes they all fall under the super-maxim, “Be perspicuous” which, arguably, is exactly the opposite.

  5. Mark Aufflick

    I haven’t come across H.P. Grice so thanks for the pointer. These maxims are nearly exactly what I advise technical people who are often unused to writing for others’ consumption–having a thorough logic to back them up will help persuade the most stubborn!

  6. OldFuzz

    Why an assumption that the response “yes” is a joke. It is in fact a very polite and generous answer, letting the questioner know that you would like a hot drink, would be happy with either and leaving the choice up to them! A lot of information conveyed in a concise answer!

  7. Stubborn Mule Post author

    OldFuzz with a response like that, I can be sure you’ve used the joke yourself! If, however, the respondent really wanted to indicate that either option was acceptable, an answer of “Yes” violates Manner 2 (ambiguity) as the response could mean they want coffee not tea, tea not coffee or that both would be acceptable. A brief but non-violating response would therefore be “either (thanks!)”.

  8. Stubborn Mule Post author

    Marco from some of the discussion and examples, it is clear that Grice includes at least some written exchanges (letter-writing in particular) in this framework. He does not, however, discuss the difference signals that are available in person that are not available in writing. The focus of his paper is on the common threads across a wide range of types of “conversation” rather than the points of difference.

    Also, speaking of jokes, Grice gives the example of a British General who captured the town of Sind and cables to his superiors the message Peccavi, which is Latin for “I have sinned”.

  9. Paddy

    Reminds me of a joke Robbie once told me: Axioms A, B and C admit a conclusion Z. Axiom D contradicts Z, but admits conclusion Y.

    (Needless to say that I have never won any friends with the joke).

  10. Amit Kumar

    The maxims are good with respect to cooperativeness in conversation but in general there is no obligation to be cooperative. For example, you don’t want to be cooperative with a murderer looking out for your friend.

  11. Stubborn Mule Post author

    Amit: you are correct. The maxims really only apply to conversations that both participants wish to pursue. In a less dramatic example, if someone you find boring or annoying starts a conversation with you, you may respond to their questions with curt, unhelpful answers (violating Quantity 1) in an effort to break the conversation off as quickly as possible without going as far as explicitly telling them to go away.

  12. Mike Ev

    Thank heavens the Mule was not around 12 years ago when some hottie called liza asked me “are you married or are you single?” to which I replied…errr….”Yes”.

    My marriage would have been over before it began….

  13. OldFuzz

    No sale Stubborn- my answer “Yes” was quite unambiguous – how can such a simple one-word answer be ambiguous.
    The problem is that the Question itself fails Manner 2!
    Suggested solution – pose the questian an a Boolean “Exclusive OR”….

  14. JamesGlover

    Before Grice, Chomsky seemed to think the only relevant study of language was in one-sided didactic statements because that it is pretty much all he does – talk at people. Grice believes conversation should be truthful, efficient and serious. I imagine his conversations are pretty much like that as well. There are many conversations which aren’t truthful: “no your bum doesn’t look big in that” being the most famous. There are also many that violate Grice’s principles but are nonetheless entertaining, like your original joke, at least the first time you hear it.

    Perhaps his principles might apply to NASA communicating with Mars astronauts over limited bandwidth but the bandwidth of ordinary conversation is huge and so it has no reason, normally, to be efficient, meaningful, or even truthful.

  15. Stubborn Mule Post author

    James Based on some of the examples in the essay, I would say that Grice was thinking more broadly than your average earth to Mars communique:

    Mrs. X is an old bag.

    I sought to tell my love, love that never told can be.

    She is probably deceiving him this evening.

    He even touches on the role of humour (perhaps not as we know it, given the peccavi example). So, while I cannot vouch for Chomsky, I don’t think that Grice would have insisted on seriousness at all times.

  16. JamesGlover

    The opening lines of my favourite poem (For X by Louis MacNeice) is a sort of conversation:
    “Where clerks and navvies fondle/ Beside canals their wenches/And the haunches that they handle/ In rapture or in coma”
    is a kind of conversation, as is my pointing backwards in the direction I had just come in when someone asked me in NY (on my first trip) where Washington Park was, which I had just passed.
    I guess the best you could say is it’s just as well I didn’t mix them up.

  17. Pingback: art of conversation

Leave a Reply