Applying Grice’s Cooperative Principle to Online Discussions

Philosopher of language H. P. Grice (1989) developed a set of rules used to determine the efficacy of conversation between speakers and listeners. Termed Grice’s cooperative principle, these rules center around the Quality, Quantity, Relation, and Manner of an exchange. Quality refers to the extent to which a statement is true and supported by evidence. Quantity refers to the amount of information conveyed—neither too much nor too little. Relation refers to the relevance of the information, while Manner refers to the message’s clarity. These are the pragmatics of conversation, or what “constitute the underlying assumptions we make as we converse with others” (D. Freeman & Y. Freeman, 2014, p. 89). A violation of these rules results in a breakdown of communication.

A case study conducted by Ho and Swan (2007) sought to find correlations between graduate students’ discussion posts in an asynchronous online course and their final grades. They coded 512 discussion responses gathered during the course using a rubric based on Grice’s cooperative principle. They wanted to determine which posts generated the most conversational threads. Not surprisingly, the posts that led to more responses and rated higher on the rubric correlated with students receiving an overall higher final grade in the course. Quality and Relation contributed most to the students’ high scores on the rubric. In other words, posts that were both relevant to the discussion thread and contained evidence to support a statement or opinion spawned a greater number of responses that helped sustain the conversation. Quantity was also significant, with concise posts generating more follow-up responses than longer posts. Ho and Swan hypothesized that in an online environment, readers lose patience with reading lengthy text. Manner had the least influence. Spelling and mechanics mattered, but only if the meaning of the text itself was otherwise unintelligible.

With an increasing amount of learning taking place in a virtual, asynchronous environment, at all grade levels, the application of Grice’s cooperative principle in online discussion is more relevant today than ever. Literacy educators instruct students in reading, writing, listening, and oral communication. It stands to reason that the same principles we apply to in-person communication can also be applied to online discussion. Therefore, we must explicitly demonstrate what effective discussion looks like, whether in person or online. As Ho and Swan (2007) conclude, the results of their case study might help administrators and educators “examine important components in the non-traditional learning environment, namely the processes involved in productive online discussion” (p. 26). Learning to effectively communicate when face-to-face takes practice. We cannot assume that students have the knowledge or skills to effectively communicate in a virtual environment.

What are your thoughts?


Freeman, D.E., & Freeman, Y.S. (2014). Essential linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and grammar, (2nd edition). Heinemann.

Grice, H.P. (1989). Studies in the way of words. Harvard University Press.

Ho, C., & Swan, K. (2007). Evaluating online conversation in an asynchronous learning environment: An application of Grice’s cooperative principle. The Internet and Higher Education10(1), 3–14.

Published by Melissa

I am a certified general education and special education teacher with a master's degree in literacy education. I currently co-teach 2nd grade in the morning and provide ELA and math instruction to a small group of 4th graders in the afternoon. I love my job!

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