Know your English Education

Stay away from the conversation

What is the difference between ‘conversation’ and ‘dialogue’? (L. Divya, Hyderabad)

When you have a ‘conversation’, you may be talking to one individual or more than one. The word ‘dialogue’, on the other hand, suggests that the exchange that is taking place is between two people or two groups of people. This subtle distinction, however, is not always maintained nowadays. Of the two words, ‘dialogue’ is considered the more formal. It is normally used to refer to the verbal exchanges that take place between characters in a movie, play or novel; in other words, in such cases, it is something that is usually written. One can, for example, talk about the humorous dialogue in a film or play. During the mid 1970s, many people in our country were raving about the dialogue in the film Sholay.

When someone engages in a dialogue with another individual, it suggests that the two have a major disagreement about something. For example, when two countries that do not see eye to eye about many things wish to sort out some of their problems, they usually have a ‘dialogue’, and not a ‘conversation’. The use of this word suggests that serious matters are going to be discussed, and the purpose behind it is to find, if possible, a solution to the existing problem. The two individuals or groups of individuals are not going to be shooting the breeze.

The Naxal leader was willing to enter into a dialogue with the State Government.

According to the CEO, the dialogue between the Management and Union is ongoing.

In the case of a ‘conversation’, on the other hand, there is an exchange of ideas or information, but the things that people talk about may not always be important — this probably explains why people sometimes describe the conversation they had as being ‘silly’, ‘boring’, ‘serious’, etc. The verb form of conversation is ‘converse’; it is frequently used in both British and American English in informal and formal contexts. While the British do not use ‘dialogue’ as a verb, the Americans do.

The sponsor would like to converse with the head of the family.

The PRO was in no mood to dialogue with the members of the Union.

Is it okay to say, “I want to keep her at an arm’s length”? (J. Bhavani, Mysore)

No, it isn’t! The correct expression is ‘to keep someone at arm’s length’; the indefinite article ‘an’ is not used. When you keep someone at arm’s length, you keep them at a distance; you do not wish to become friends with them or become emotionally involved with them. The expression is always used in informal contexts. It is also possible to say, ‘hold someone at arm’s length’.

Ever since her divorce, Shanthi has kept most of her friends at arm’s length.

Suresh is a con man. If I were you, I’d keep him at arm’s length.

Other expressions which have more or less the same meaning are, ‘steer clear of’, ‘give a wide berth to’, ‘keep one’s distance from’ and ‘keep/stay away from’.


Lettuce is like conversation; it must be fresh and crisp, so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it. Charles Dudley Warner

The writer taught at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 9:08:22 PM |

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