Is it proper grammar to say, “I look forward to speaking with you”? The short answer is, yes. Yet sticklers for formally correct grammar may insist that native English speakers would prefer, or even insist, that the proper phrasing is “I look forward to speaking to you.”
The phrases “I look forward to speaking with you” and “I look forward to speaking to you” mean the same thing in spoken and written English. Some critics have the opinion, however, that “speaking with” implies a dialogue, whereas “speaking to” is one-way communication and “with” is the more polite and common form.
But all of these opinions may be argued as being nothing more than that: opinions. To settle the debate, a safe place to start is always to look for the level of support for these opinions in dictionaries and style guides. I’ll take a closer look at the support for both of these phrases.
Is it I Look Forward to Speaking with You or to You?
Do any of the major dictionaries record a difference in meaning between these two phrases?
What the Dictionaries Say
The go-to dictionary for American English is Merriam-Webster, originally founded in 1828 and claiming to be America’s most trusted online resource. Still, they do not express a preference either way.
The dictionary does provide a number of helpful prepositions to follow “speak,” including “speak to or with,” “speak up,” “speak out,” “speak of,” “speak on,” “speak about,” and “speak for,” all of which have different meanings.
The entry in the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus is “Speak (to or with),” which means “to communicate with by means of spoken words.” The illustrative example sentence they give is, “we spoke to the mall’s leasing agent about opening a shop” (source).
It would seem clear, then, that they view the two expressions (speak to/speak with) as being entirely interchangeable in almost every context.
We will see later that two of the main British dictionaries, the Oxford New Essential Dictionary and the Cambridge Dictionary, speak more of the context within which these two verbal phrases are used than of an actual difference in meaning between the two phrases.
What the Style Manuals Say
As for the style manuals, such as the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and Dreyer’s English (2019), CMOS is firmly of the opinion that style manuals are simply guides.
They frequently use words such as “may,” “sometimes,” and “usually” to illustrate in their applications that there are very few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to usage.
In the words of CMOS’s chief copy editor, Carol Fisher Saller, when it comes to so-called correct grammar, the reader matters more than the rule book.
In other words, grammar rules are less important than the clarity of the message that the writer or speaker is trying to put across.
Although she does have a certain tolerance for the idea that grammar rules may be equally important to the clarity of the message, she does believe that, in most cases, clarity trumps (source).
Or, as Benjamin Dreyer says, “There are fewer absolutes in writing than you might think.”
Speaking with You May Be More Polite
In an age of political correctness, the words you use are often a reflection of your opinions, beliefs, and attitudes.
One popular modern-day opinion is that communication should be as inclusive as possible. One of our conversational aims, therefore, should be to draw people into our conversation, to seek out their opinions, and turn communication into a conversation (source).
This attitude implies that we should be speaking “with” someone rather than “to” them. “Speak with” sounds more like two people having a conversation together in an atmosphere of mutually inclusive sharing of ideas and opinions.
Conversely, “speaking to” may imply a rather more one-way, top-down type of communication wherein one speaker is telling or instructing another. One person is speaking, and another person (or persons) do the listening.
This is certainly the case in one sense of the use of the phrase, “speak to.” Take the following sentence, for example:
Before lending him my car, I wanted to speak to my son about the dangers of drinking and driving.
This isn’t a conversation between equals, and one does not anticipate any argument from the son in the face of his father’s advice. It is one-way communication.
The expression “speaking to” may also be used in this sense as a reprimand. For example:
I had to speak to our custodian today about her absence from work.
Here again, this is not a two-way conversation, but rather a boss-subordinate relationship in which one party (the boss) is by nature of their position of authority entitled to enforce a set of rules and regulations.
The subordinate custodian is not expected to participate in this exchange, except to the extent of saying, “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”
The Oxford Learners Dictionary includes the above specific meaning of “to talk to somebody in a serious way about something they have done, to try to stop them doing it again” (source).
The headmaster spoke to the boys about the upcoming sports day.
Clearly, this is one-way communication in which the headmaster speaks, and the boys listen. Does this mean that “The headmaster spoke with the boys” is incorrect or less appropriate? It’s not necessarily incorrect, but a question of preferred style.
The following exchange, however, would adopt a rather different tone and be the result of a different set of exchanges.
I enjoyed speaking to you the other night at the school reunion.
Here, two people who share a common history are conversing. They would probably have shared stories of things they remember from the time they were together at the same school.
In this sense, would it not be more correct to say that they are speaking “with” each other? In North American English, almost certainly, yes.
In a similar way, our boss and custodian would have adopted a different tone, and outcome, to the conversation if the boss had approached the custodian with:
I want to speak to you about your good attendance. You haven’t been absent one day this year.
Might it have made any difference, in the sense of being more polite, if the boss instead said he wanted to speak “with” the cleaner?
Probably not, although in many people’s experience, any time the boss puts his head around the door and says, “I want to speak to you,” it almost always raises a prickle of unpleasant anticipation about what is coming next!
It is not even true that we “speak to” children and “speak with” adults. Politeness and context appropriateness are not always age-specific.
We can see from these examples that “speaking to” and “speaking with” may be used more or less interchangeably but may also vary slightly in tone and meaning in different contexts.
The same thinking applies to the common expression of “to meet with” someone, especially in American English. British people simply “meet” each other.
Nowadays, though, “to meet” is more likely to refer to an event, an instance in time, whereas “meeting with” implies to have a meeting with someone over a duration.
Meeting with is also regarded in some circles as somehow warmer, implying a sense of collaboration, of working together on something.
We’ll take a closer look at some more differences between American/British English later on in this article.
Using Speak or Talk Properly
Although they are synonyms, when is it better to say “speak” rather than “talk”?
Both of these verbs generally mean “to use or say words,” but there are small differences in the way they are used. “Speak” is generally more formal than “talk” (source).
I want to speak to you about your behavior (more formal).
Let’s talk about our plans for the future together (more informal).
Once again, the words “speak” and “talk” may be interchangeable in these sentences. There are times, however, when the two words do have a rather more specific application.
Jacqui speaks Dutch and German.
Note that it’s not “Jacqui talks Dutch and German.”
Hello, this is Maria speaking. [On the telephone]
Note that it’s not “This is Maria talking.”
We talked about our holidays over dinner.
This is instead of the more formal “We spoke about our holidays over dinner.” In this sense, it may even be preferable to say that “We chatted about our holidays over dinner.”
Merriam-Webster explains that “speak” is used for anything said, whether it is understood or not and whether it is heard or not.
We use “talk” when there is a listener who understands what is said and often when both people in the conversation do some speaking.
Another synonym, “converse,” refers to the exchange of thoughts and opinions.
“Speak” and “talk” may be followed by either of the prepositions, “to” or “with.” However, one always converses with someone else.
There are subtle differences between the words “speak” and “talk,” and that is why there is an entirely separate discussion on the grammatical correctness of the phrase “I look forward to talking to you.”
British vs. American English
A few dictionaries draw a distinction in modern usage between “speak to” as the predominant British English usage and “speak with” being predominantly American English usage.
However, the use of “speak with” has a long history in British English, too.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does not distinguish between the two phrases, although it does make the nuanced distinction in the sense that either “speak to” and “speak with” can be used when two people speak to each other.
Still, “speak to” can really only be used in the sense where one person speaks and the other person listens.
Both phrases, however, are commonly seen in Britain and elsewhere, going back to references in Old and early Middle English (source).
For example, Symon Patrick’s Parable of a Pilgrim: Written to a Friend, written in 1665, has this passage (source):
When any temptation desires to speak with you, let the answer be ready…
Tennyson also wrote in his 1847 poem, The Princess:
Not for three years to speak with any men.
The expression “speak to” has an equally well-recorded history in English literature, including passages from the Bible:
Behold the man whom I spake to thee of! (1 Samuel 9:17)
And in Thomas Hobbes Leviathan (1651):
Commanded by a voice, as one man speaketh to another.
This would indicate that it’s incorrect to say one form of the expression, “speak with” or “speak to,” is in any way older than or superior to the other. Both are well represented in literature, albeit with sometimes nuanced meanings based on the context.
That Expression, “I Look Forward to…”
Looking forward to something has become somewhat clichéd. The expression is used so often and in so many different contexts that readers no longer register its original meaning and intention to signal eager anticipation.
Thoughtful writing will, therefore, look for ways of expressing this intention in more creative ways.
A preferred alternative to “looking forward” to something is to say what you really mean by expressing a call-to-action. Instead of looking forward to speaking with (or to) someone, why not say:
Call me in a few days when you’ve had a chance to think about my ideas.
I’m excited by what we spoke about. Let’s get together for coffee.
If I don’t hear from you by next week, I’ll assume you’re not interested.
I expect an EFT by Wednesday, or I’m handing this account over for collection.
Although, perhaps all you need to say, really, is:
Write soon! Cheers!
The Bottom Line
As one smarty-pants pointed out, you cannot speak with a brick wall, but you can speak to a brick wall, although you may not get any response.
This implies that using “with” indicates a conversation between two people, and “to” indicates a top-down, one-way communication form.
Whether you say “speak with” or “speak to” is largely a matter of personal preference. Both mean the same thing, although if you want to believe that there is a subtle hint of inclusivity in “speak with,” by all means, use it.
The words and phrases in any language, including English, grow, develop, adapt, and change with time and usage. English is renowned for this adaptation.
This makes it all the more advisable to buy a new dictionary every few years. Words and phrases are being added all the time and in quicker succession.
For example, who would have thought that the Merriam-Webster 2020 word of the year would be “pandemic”?