When learning English, we must know how to use the correct prepositions so that our speech sounds fluent. For example, a common confusion arises around whether to say “speak to” or “speak with.” What is the difference between “speak to” and “speak with”?
Speak to and speak with are both are correct and can be used almost interchangeably to describe a verbal exchange. Some people believe “speak with” demonstrates two-way conversation better than “speak to,” but the latter is more common. “Speak to” can also mean to discuss something specific or to have special significance in certain idiomatic contexts.
This article will explore when we should use “speak with” or “speak to” and how they subtly differ. We’ll also consider the difference between “speak” and “talk” and why they’re sometimes interchangeable and sometimes not.
Understanding When to Use Speak to or Speak With
“Speak” is a verb that most often means using your voice to express yourself. However, it can also mean to address a group of people or refer to mastery of a language. The table below summarizes the various contexts of “speak” (source).
|Say words||Please could you speak more slowly? |
Andrew spoke to his team after the match.
|From a particular point of view||Strictly speaking, we shouldn’t allow her to return.|
This castle is very significant, historically speaking.
|Talk in a language||She speaks French fluently.|
How many languages does he speak?
|Give a formal address||The President will speak on TV tonight.|
I’m speaking against the motion in tomorrow’s debate.
|Express without words||Her eyes spoke of such mischief.|
The statue speaks to the gravity of the subject’s struggle.
The most common use of “speak” refers to someone using words to say something to someone else. This leads us to examine the difference between “speak with” or “speak to.”
When we “speak with” somebody, we are specifically implying a two-way conversation. Some linguists will argue that “speak to” implies one-way conversation, where the speaker addresses the listener, but that is not always the case.
“Speak with” does sound more casual, and we are more likely to use it when we are talking about having a casual conversation with somebody. It’s also more common in American English, although acceptable in both British and American English. Consider the examples below.
- She spoke with her friends, and they decided to delay the party.
- I’d like to speak with you when you have some time.
We can also use “speak with” to describe how someone spoke. Here we follow “speak with” with a noun, as in the following examples. In this context, we cannot substitute “speak to.”
- You need to speak with confidence if you want your students to believe you.
- People believe in him because he speaks with passion.
When we use “speak to,” it’s not as simple as “speak with” because there are various definitions, depending on the context. To decide whether it is speaking “with” you or “to” you, we need to be clear on what we are trying to say.
If we are talking about using words to tell someone something, then we can use “speak to” or “speak with,” and the sentence will still have a very similar meaning as we show below.
- She spoke to her friends, and they decided to delay the party.
- I’d like to speak to you when you have some time.
However, “speak to” also has some specific definitions that it does not share with “speak with,” which we detail in the table below.
|Resonate with or interest||His artwork really speaks to me.|
|Address a particular topic||The design of the show is to speak to issues affecting women.|
|Proof of a fact||The number of complaints speaks to the fact that there is an issue with service delivery.|
Possibly owing to its multiple definitions, “speak to” appears more commonly in text. For example, the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) indicates that English speakers use “speak to” nearly three times more than “speak with” (source).
In these examples above, the sentences use “speak” metaphorically. This means that we use figurative language to make a comparison between two things.
In these sentences, the author describes the subjects “artwork,” “design of the show,” and “The number of complaints” as “speaking.” They obviously don’t actually “speak,” so they’re using the verb figuratively.
In the English language, we often use metaphors to make conversation richer and more interesting. Below are some other common examples of verbs that we might use metaphorically.
- The detective dug up some incriminating evidence.
- Jane always breaks into other people’s conversations.
- The committee shot down my idea.
Clearly, the detective didn’t actually dig anything up but, rather, uncovered some evidence in his research. Instead, using “dug up” creates an image of how hard the evidence was to find.
Similarly, Jane doesn’t physically “break into” conversations, but she interrupts, and if you imagine a conversation as a physical thing, then she’s “breaking into” it. And finally, the committee didn’t line up with rifles to shoot my idea but, rather, rejected it, making me feel like it had been “shot down.”
Idioms Using “Speak”
Myriad idioms use the word “speak.” An idiom is a common phrase or saying that means something other than its literal meaning, often using metaphor. Because we use these so often, most of us understand their meaning (source). Below are some examples that illustrate these.
|Speak volumes||Display/ represent||The exam results speak volumes for the quality of his teaching.|
|Speak out of turn||Express something inappropriate||I’m worried that I spoke out of turn when I asked for a raise during today’s meeting.|
|On speaking terms||Have a friendly rapport with||Are you on speaking terms with your neighbor after your dog bit her?|
|So to speak||Indicating that a saying is not literal||It’s World War II out there, so to speak.|
|Speak the same language||Understand one another/ agree||He would do well on our team because we speak the same language.|
|Speak your mind||Express your beliefs||I’m planning to speak my mind when they ask for feedback.|
|Speak for yourself||Represent your own opinion||Speaker A: That movie was terrible! Speaker B: Speak for yourself; I thought it was great.|
|Speak ill of||Say bad things about||It’s not right to speak ill of your mother.|
|Speak well of||Say good things about||He always spoke well of his childhood friends.|
“Speak to,” “speak with,” and many of the other examples above are all phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs comprise a verb and a particle — or, sometimes, two particles. A particle is usually an adverb or a preposition that we add to a verb to form the phrasal verb (source). They’re very common in English and include everyday examples such as the following:
- Get up
- Sit down
- Look forward to
- Pick up
- Turn down
All of these contain a simple verb (get, sit, look, etc.), but when you add the particles, the resulting phrasal verb doesn’t necessarily mean the same as the simple verb.
In the case of “speak,” there are many phrasal verbs that we use in addition to “speak with” and “speak to.” These have various meanings, depending on their context, and can be metaphoric. These include the following.
|Speak of||Show or indicate:Her assistance spoke of such kindness.|
|Speak for||Speak on someone’s behalf:I speak for the whole team when I say that we value your input.|
Claim or reserve:I had an extra ticket, but it’s already spoken for.
Exhibit an intrinsic quality:You are so talented; your paintings speak for themselves.
|Speak out/up||Assert an opinion:She needs to speak out/up when she doesn’t agree with her boss.|
|Speak up||Talk more loudly:I can’t hear you. Please can you speak up?|
These phrasal verbs are further examples of “speak” functioning in common idioms and often also functioning metaphorically.
Both “speak to” and “speak with” are phrasal verbs that contain a verb and a preposition. These types of phrasal verbs require an object because a preposition always needs an object.
Both “with” and “to” are little prepositions that can change the sense of what we are saying. There are more than a hundred prepositions in English, and we use them to show a relationship between people, places, or things. We usually follow them with a noun or pronoun that forms the object of the sentence (source).
Consider the examples below.
- Jack spoke to Mary.
- Peter spoke with his class.
- The artwork spoke to me.
In all cases, we follow “spoke to/with” by an object — Mary, his class, or me — whether we use “speak” metaphorically or not.
For further reading about prepositions and their role in language, take a look at “Knowledge on or Knowledge of: Which Is Correct?”
Speak vs. Talk
Are “speak” and “talk” the same, or do they subtly differ? Does it matter if I say, “Can I speak to you?” or “Can I talk to you?” Both mean “to say words,” but there are some subtle differences between the two verbs.
Speak and Talk as Verbs
The verb “speak” is more formal than “talk” and tends to imply some authority. For example, consider the two sentences below.
- You need to speak to Jane.
- You need to talk to Jane.
While both essentially mean the same thing, using “speak” implies a more formal setting and suggests that Jane may have to receive some serious information. Conversely, using “talk” implies a less formal setting and suggests more of a conversation (source).
Although we can sometimes use them almost interchangeably, they cannot always substitute for one another.
When we refer to languages, we always use “speak.” We can ask, “Do you speak French?” but we would not say, “Do you talk French?”
We also use “speak” when referring to a telephone conversation. We will ask, “Who’s speaking?” on the phone, but we would not say, “Who’s talking?”
When we refer to a conversation, we’d use “talk” rather than “speak.” We would say, “They talked and talked during their dinner date” rather than “They spoke and spoke during their dinner date.”
Speak and Talk as Nouns
Interestingly, although “speak” and “talk” behave similarly as verbs, they are not interchangeable as nouns.
We only use “speak” as a noun in one specific application when we refer to the jargon of a particular group. In this usage, we combine it with another noun to create a word like “newspeak” or “IT-speak” to refer to the language of those involved in news or IT.
If we’re talking about the act of speaking, we will use the nouns “speech” or “speaking.”
Conversely, we use “talk” widely as a noun. The act of talking is “talk,” as we demonstrate in the examples below.
- We need to have a serious talk about her behavior.
- He gave an interesting talk at the conference.
Although we use “talk” in both these examples, there is a subtle difference in meaning. In the first example, we could use “discussion” or “conversation” instead of “talk.” In the second example, we could substitute “talk” for “speech” or “presentation.”
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
If we refer to “talks” in the plural, then we are referring to discussions between people with differing viewpoints. We show this usage in the examples below.
- The Foreign Secretary is going to Russia for talks with the President.
- There is hope of a solution following talks between the two factions.
- The recent unrest reveals the need for further talks.
When considering whether to say “speak to” or “speak with,” it’s useful to know that both are acceptable when referring to being in conversation with someone. However, “speaking with” has more casual connotations and refers to a two-way conversation. “Speaking to” can appear more one-sided, depending on the context of the sentence.
If we’re speaking metaphorically, then we need to remember that “speak to” is the correct choice, and we need to grasp the nuances of those meanings. When we use them correctly, metaphors make our language more vivid and create interesting imagery.
The English language can speak to you on so many levels if you persevere with mastering it.