"Talk With" versus "Talk To"

And other troublesome prepositions.

Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty ,
October 21, 2010
Episode #245

In today's show, we cover whether you should say you talked to someone or talked with someone.

In an e-mail message, Kevin B. wrote, “I always hear talk show hosts say ‘It was nice talking to you....’ This (to me) sounds wrong, as if the person the host was speaking with was sitting there.... Shouldn’t it be ‘It was nice talking with you...’?. The use of the word ‘to’ instead of ‘with’ sounds directional, but the conversation was bi-directional.”

It’s true that the phrase “talk with someone” clearly refers to a two-way (or many-way) conversation. Still, “talk to someone” doesn’t rule out a two-way conversation. Any number of things could be happening while you’re “talking to” someone that you don’t mention, including that the person might be talking back to you. A Google search turns up many hits for strings like “I talked with them and they said”, but it also does for strings like “I talked to them and they said”, which indicates that many writers don’t interpret “talk to” to exclude a two-way conversation.

The Maxim of Quantity

But are all those writers and talk show hosts simply wrong? Let’s consider the position. Why might “talk to” be a mistake when it refers to an interactive conversation? One could argue that since there is an equally simple expression that is more specific than “talk to,” you should use it if it’s truthful. Linguists call this principle the Maxim of Quantity. A speaker who respects this principle will give as much information as possible. For example, if you had a son and two daughters, and someone asked you if you had children, and you answered, “I have a son,” you would be violating Quantity because you left out something important. You would risk being labeled as sneaky and uncooperative.

The Maxim of Relevance

In response to the Quantity-based argument that you should use “talk with” for two-sided conversations because it gives more information, one could argue in defense of “talk to” based on another principle, called the Maxim of Relevance, which states that a cooperative speaker will not mention irrelevant facts. To illustrate with the son-and-two-daughters example, you could satisfy Quantity and Relevance by saying, “A son and two daughters.” If you went on to give a five-minute biography for each child, you’d still be respecting Quantity, but you might be violating Relevance. In other words, you droned on and on about things that aren't relevant.

Returning to the issue of “talk with” versus “talk to,” you could argue that most people understand that if you’re talking to someone, he or she will also be talking to you, barring unusual circumstances. Therefore, there’s no reason to avoid “talk to” as a general rule. If the conversation is one-sided, you can say you “lectured” someone instead, or even “talked at” people if the audience wasn't paying attention. If the conversation is two-sided, but you have some reason to highlight that fact, then you can use “talked with,” or to really drive it home, “had a conversation with.”


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