30 November 2009

Is there such a thing as a "co-conspirator" ??

Web stories are full of "co-conspirators," many of whom are unindicted. Is this a grammatical faux pas?

I have a note jotted down from months ago (source unknown) which says that people who participate in a conspiracy are "conspirators," which leaves "co-conspirators" as an unnecessary redundancy.

My Random House doesn't list "co-conspirator." Several online dictionaries do, but define it as "a conspirator." I'm too busy now to search further, but I know there are some readers of this blog who are better wordsmiths than I am....


  1. OED lists co-conspirator, and example uses from 1883 and 1886:

    "He has sought to become..in the palace of the French emperor a *co-conspirator with him."

    "Mr. Bright and his co-conspirators."

  2. I started out to give you an explanation and, half way through realized that it is what is called in law, "A Distinction Without Difference." When boiled down, they are the same thing.

    I'll go back to sleep.

  3. I agree they are the same; however, using co-conspirator makes the syntax of the sentence more fluid. For instance, two co-presidents of an organization are both presidents, but the phrase "Mr. Smith and co-president, Mr. Jones" flows much more smoothly than "Mr. Smith and the other president, Mr. Jones." Similarly, listing a defendant and a co-conspirator is much easier to write, read and speak than listing "another of the conspirators" or the like.

    1. How about "Presidents Smith and Jones". Very accurate and concise.

    2. That's not how it would read! It would read, "Mr. Smith, and conspirator, Mr. Jones"

  4. conspirator is to co-conspirator as
    worker is to co-worker

    1. Co-conspirator, while having a nice 'ring' to it's pronunciation, is redundant. If you search any credible paper dictionary, you will find 'co-conspirator' just above 'irregardless'.

    2. Wrong--sometimes. If Bob helped John plan a bank robbery, would you not say "Bob is John's co-defendant" in the trail ? You certainly would not say "Bob is John's defendant in the trial"! So, would you say "Bob is John's "conspirator" in the case??" No, he is John's "co-conspirator". It's more efficient than "Bob is the guy who conspired with John..." If it establishes a direct relationship I say it's OK. (Is OK, OK?)

    3. Chuck, you're missing the point of the argument. Yes, you would say "co-defendant" because defendant doesn't have the term "co" in it already. Saying "Bob is John's 'conspirator' would be perfectly fine because 'conspirator' is "co" +"spiro" and the 'co' is already there.

      This post was written in 2009. Let's move the analogy to a more modern setting. If Trump and Manafort and the Russians "colluded" would you say they are "co-colluders?" No. "Collude" is from the Latin colludere, from con- and ludere (“to play”). So two people collude, three people collude - they don't co-collude. Same with conspiring.

  5. @ Conor and Lorin - there's a difference between conspirator and your president and worker comparisons. Conspirator means literally "breathing together" and means one of several people working together - not true of worker or president.

    Re Conor's example, co-presidents is fine, but for the defendant example all that needs to be written is "a defendant and a conspirator." The "co-" isn't needed.

    Same for Lorin's example. Workers have co-workers, but conspirators have conspirators. There's no need for the "co-", which is already in the word.

    I'll concede that the OED does rarely acknowledge the possibility of a single conspirator.

  6. Stan, I see where you're coming from, but I disagree.

    The dictionary nearest my hand, the Mac OS New Oxford American, tells me:

    a person who takes part in a conspiracy

    1 a person or animal that works, in particular...

    I don't see a lot of difference there.

    Consider this example: Alex, Blair, Chris and Dale are secretly scheming to egg the car their boss drives. Alex and Blair work for Eddie, while Chris and Dale work for Francis.

    So, Alex, Blair, Chris and Dale are conspirators.
    Alex is Blair's co-worker and co-conspirator, but Chris is not.
    Chris is Dale's co-conspirator.

  7. My analytic abilities may be compromised after a couple bourbons tonight, but I think one could still say that A and B are co-workers and... conspirators.

    C and D are co-workers and... conspirators.

    The co's don't seem necessary. You're using them to distinguish the A/B group from the C/D group. I'm not sure that's the meaning of the prefix.

    Not that all this really matters, in any case... (Or I suppose if I were younger I would just say "whatever...") But I still think the "co" is redundant.

    Just did some Googling. Your argument is supported here -


    My doubts seem to be supported by a quote from William Safire: "to me, a co-conspirator is as redundant as a co-equal" (http://books.google.com/books?id=35dZpfMmxqsC&pg=PA164&lpg=PA164&dq=is+co-conspirator+redundant%3F&source=bl&ots=k8t1WCpfMd&sig=ehYcdIueaEoZ9DwQqIcBZL5f2qo&hl=en&ei=XKsUS8_SOc_4nAeu3c3eBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CBkQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=is%20co-conspirator%20redundant%3F&f=false).

    That link is ridiculously long because it goes to a Google Books page.

    There are some more links when you Google "is co-conspirator redundant" without the quotation marks.

    I don't think this will get solved tonight. At least not by me.

  8. Well, a co-pilot is still a pilot, isn't he? But you call him a co-pilot because he's piloting with another pilot.

    In the same way two conspirators could accurately be called co-conspirators.

  9. I always see the word in association with "unindicted", as in unindicted co-conspirator.

    It seeems to be the preferred legal term. I've never seen anybody describes as an undindicted conspirator in a legal complaint.

    Perhaps the word is used in this instance to indicate clearly that the unindicted individual is part of the same conspiracy as the indicted individuals? Unindicted conspirator leaves open the possibility that they could be part of a second conspiracy, whereas unindicted co-conspirator indicates relation to the conspirators listed in the complaint?

  10. The more I think about it, the more I agree with Lorin's and others' arguments.

    Co-conspirator is o.k.

  11. @Leah - the reason you can have a co-pilot is because you start with a pilot.

    But can you start with just one conspirator? No - at least in the modern use of the word. If he's by himself, who is he conspiring with? Noone. Then he's not a conspirator - he's just a plotter or a criminal or whatever. To have a CONspiracy, you have to have two people who are con-spirators.

  12. @Keith -

    "I've never seen anybody describes as an undindicted conspirator in a legal complaint."

    I wondered about that and just did a quick Google. 3,300 hits for "unindicted conspirator" in quotes, including prominent cases (WTC bombing, Clinton aide, Louisiana corruption probe, Holy Land terror tiral). So some attorneys (or laws) must use the term on a regular basis.

  13. I've changed my mind again, retracting my acceptance of "co-conspirator" ("A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"), during a long bath, which is a wonderful place to ponder the meaning of things as long as your name isn't Marat.

    So far, noone has agreed with me that "co-conspirator" is a redundant word (or, to be more precise, noone who agrees with me has written a comment in support of my assertion).

    Therefore, you are all CONSPIRING against me - Peter, Artful Dodger, Conor, Lorin, Leah, and keith.

    The six of you would call yourselves "co-conspirators." Right? No argument there. (and you're unindicted, FWIW...).

    I would call you "conspirators" who are "conspiring" in a "conspiracy." Am I wrong? I don't think so - it's just that you don't hear the word "conspirator" very often. But you ARE conspirators.

    Are you also co-conspirators? Co-conspirators who are co-conspiring in a co-conspiracy. That's silly. Noone would say co-conspiring or co-conspiracy because the words would be internally redundant. Which is what I would say about co-conspirator as well.

    What makes co-conspirator fundamentally different from co-pilot or co-president etc is that the co- is already in the word. No need to add it again.

    Maybe one could use "colleague" as an analogy. You can't be a colleague by yourself any more than you can be a conspirator by yourself. When there are several people who league together (or literally "choose together"), they become "colleagues." They don't become "co-colleagues." One doesn't say that A and B are co-colleagues but not colleagues of C and D.

    Anyone want to join me to make a conspiracy to overthrow co-conspirator? You can be my conspirator.

  14. Just as a worker is just a worker, but you can be my co-worker. A conspirator is just a conspirator, but you can be my co-conspirator. It's a mutual thing i guess.

  15. Nate, you're not getting the point of the unusual aspect of conspirator.

    Yes, a worker is a worker. You can have one worker. The one who joins him/her is a co-worker.

    But you can't have ONE conspirator. A conspiracy REQUIRES two people.

    Let me try a different example. Classmate. If you go to college and sit in a class, you may be the only student in Physics 301. Fine. But you're not a classmate until someone else walks in and sits down. Now the two of you are classmates. You are NOT co-classmates.

    "Classmates" can be extended to Lorin's example. Alex and Blair are members of the class of 2010. Chris and Dale are members of the class of 2011. A&B are "classmates." C&D are classmates. A and C are NOT classmates. OK. But you don't call A&B "co-classmates" to distinguish them from C&D.

    It's the same with conspirators. There have to be two or more of them, adding co- to it is redundant.

    I love the smell of petty, academic controversy in the morning...

  16. As someone who used to draft, and now defends against, indictments discussing co-conspirators, this thread is making me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

    Another law enforcement grammatical quirk -- they're all "special" agents.

  17. Now that that's settled, let's begin the topic of the NON word "noone". It really IS two words, Stan--NO + ONE


  18. I actually don't think the previous point is "settled" because I'm not confident I'm right, but I guess I outlasted the conspirators.

    I won't argue with you on "no one." You're quite right.

  19. I was almost convinced, until I realised I could describe someone convinced along with me as my co-convinced. It's clumsy, but I noöne can prove it's wrong.

    What about convener and co-convener? Congregant and co-congregant? Conventioneer and co-conventioneer?

    Like co-conspirator, they all sound unwieldy, but the co- prefix makes the meaning more specific.

    I'm confused, and I could call Stan my co-confused.

  20. Fellow conspirator sounds much better anyway, whether or not co-conspirator is co-condoned.

  21. From Modern Legal Usage:


  22. there is no such thing as co-- because one can not conspire by ones self.. all are conspirator

  23. How about preconditions that must be met before a meeting is held? Must these be agreed upon before the conditions are met?

    What about a preexisting medical condition? Is this something that existed before your existing medical condition?

    Is all media copy created by a coconspiracy of dunces?

  24. Stan has been right all along and most people have missed the point.

    The idea of togetherness is already reflected in the suffix CON in CONSPIRATOR. As the anonymous poster put it on June 19, nobody can conspire alone. You NEED two or more people to do it, so a CONSPIRATOR is a person doing something together (from SPIRARE, breathe), in this case, plotting. Two or more people working together in a process called conspiracy. So, adding an extra CO and forming CO-CONSPIRATOR is completely redundant. It's a much newer word than conspirator, and most likely formed through back-formation. While I'm not questioning it as a valid word, since people have been using it for the last 150 years, my point is that being valid doesn't change the fact that it is actually redundant.
    The word conspirator should be used instead of co-conspirator in all cases.

    The comparison with co-worker or co-pilot is not valid, as you're only using the suffix "CO" once. The words worker and pilot do not reflect the idea of togetherness present in the word conspirator.


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