Confusing words: speak, talk

Speak to and talk to

Speak and talk have similar meanings, but there are differences in the way we use the two words.

Both speak and talk suggest that a person is using his voice, or that two or more people are having a conversation.

We can say:

  • speak to someone
  • talk to someone
  • speak to someone about something
  • talk to someone about something.

Speak is more formal

One of the main differences is formality. Speak is a little more formal than talk, and is often used in polite requests:

  • Hello, could I speak to David Thompson, please? [formal, on the telephone]
  • I’ve got a complaint: I want to speak to the manager. [formal, in a restaurant or shop]

Talk is a little less formal and is more common in spoken English:

  • What on earth are you talking about? = ‘you are not making sense’ or ‘you are not being truthful’.
  • I was talking to Tom yesterday. He told me about his new house and job.
Tip

In British English speak to and talk to are more common than speak with and talk with.

When to use speak

In some idioms and fixed phrases:

  • Speak your mind = to say exactly what you are thinking, in a direct way
    Come on, speak your mind! We want to know what you’re thinking.
  • Speak up [often on the telephone] Could you speak up please? I can’t hear you.
  • Generally speaking [when generalising] Generally speaking, better quality food costs more.
  • Speak about / Speak in public [to address an audience, to make a speech] The professor spoke about fair trade in Asia.

If a noun comes after speak, it is either language or the name of a language. We say:

  • speak English NOT talk English
  • speak Russian NOT talk Russian
  • speak a language NOT talk a language.

When to use talk

In the following examples, only talk is correct:

  • talk sense
    I always listen to him: he talks a lot of sense.
  • talk nonsense
    I agreed with you earlier but now you’re talking nonsense.
  • talk rubbish
    He’s talking rubbish again. Don’t listen to him!
  • talk business [to discuss business things, to negotiate] Let’s have some lunch, then we’ll talk business.
!

Sometimes talk and speak are BOTH wrong.

We say:

  • tell the truth NOT speak the truth or talk the truth
  • tell a lie NOT speak a lie or talk a lie
  • tell a story NOT speak a story or talk a story.

Now try this quick quiz to see how well you can use speak and talk:


questions go herescoregoes here

If you found this article helpful, please click the Like and G+ buttons and share it with friends. Thanks!

See index: Confusing Words

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. See all posts by Stuart

22 Comments

  1. juan vela - May 13, 2012, 4:51 am Reply

    than you so much. This information is so important . I am learning English.

  2. klye - June 7, 2012, 12:23 pm Reply

    very good for me i like every thing

  3. veronica - June 21, 2012, 1:23 pm Reply

    thank you very much, it´s very useful for me. It´s very clear.

  4. emily - September 20, 2012, 2:14 pm Reply

    realy ! tank you very much

  5. Maria del Carmen - March 20, 2013, 4:06 am Reply

    Thank you very much. I am going to speak about this topic in my TOEFL class, so this information is very helpful for me. It is very clear!

    • Stuart Cook - March 20, 2013, 7:36 am Reply

      Thanks, Maria. Good luck with the class!

  6. Benazir - April 5, 2013, 8:39 am Reply

    Really thanks I enjoy my life with staurt English course thanks

  7. Benazir - April 5, 2013, 8:44 am Reply

    And dear staurt could you please tell me if this sentence is correct
    1 if you needed the information please tell me. Or if you need the information please tell me .
    Thanks if you help me with these two sentences it will make my life as well as possible thanks

    • Stuart Cook - April 7, 2013, 8:07 pm Reply

      Hi, Benazir
      If you’re asking if the person needs the information now or in the future, the correct version is: If you need the information, please tell me.

  8. - - September 24, 2013, 12:12 pm Reply

    So if “speak” comes before “language” because its a noun, then why doesn’t it come before “sense”? Isn’t “sense” also a noun in this context? “Talks sense” “Speaks a language”.

    I know how to hear the difference I’m just curious how, beside its formality, a sentence structure affects the use of one or the other.

    • Stuart Cook - September 25, 2013, 10:47 am Reply

      The reason speak comes before a language isn’t that languages (English, French, etc.) are nouns; it’s simply a case of collocation (words which naturally belong, or are used together). As I mention in the article, the only nouns that directly follow speak are language and the names of languages. Other nouns – you mentioned sense – are used with talk.

  9. Heather - October 18, 2013, 3:28 pm Reply

    My 3rd grader brought home a handwriting practice sheet with the sentence: “He writes better than he talks.” Is there a reason it sounds wrong to me? It seems like it should end in “speaks.”

    • Stuart Cook - October 19, 2013, 12:43 pm Reply

      Yes, Heather, I’d agree with you there. We assume they’re referring to his ability to speak the language. We say speaking skills, not talking skills.

      If they’d said he spends more time talking than learning, then that would be a different matter!

      • Heather - October 19, 2013, 5:26 pm Reply

        Thank you!

  10. rekha - July 14, 2014, 9:25 am Reply

    I would like learn englisk am scared of speaking English

  11. Hugo Arteaga - September 19, 2014, 1:59 pm Reply

    Could I say: he spends more time speaking than learning?

    • Stuart Cook - September 22, 2014, 9:17 pm Reply

      Yes, although you’d be better saying ‘more time talking than learning, as you’re probably refering to a child chatting during lessons. Talk is nearer to chat than speak.

  12. sanphet Olarnsiriwat - December 13, 2014, 2:18 am Reply

    Hi Stuart
    It’s really interesting. Generally speaking, we often use these two words. With clear explanations, this make me a better understanding and learned that sometimes I use it wrong. Thanks for your teaching.
    See you in Google+

    • Stuart Cook - December 13, 2014, 8:45 am Reply

      Hi, Sanphet

      Glad you liked the article and found it useful. Thanks for visiting the site!

  13. Hedaiet El-Sabbahy - December 15, 2014, 2:43 pm Reply

    Thanks a lot, it was really helpful to answer my little kid about the difference
    Thanks again

  14. faith - October 19, 2016, 3:50 pm Reply

    Hi Stuart. thanks for your lessons. They are very interesting. Can I also say: “Could you speak loud/low, please?” Thanks in advance.

    • Stuart Cook - October 26, 2016, 7:35 pm Reply

      Hi,
      “Could you speak loud/low, please?” is wrong.

      If it’s too loud, we can say:
      “Could you speak more quietly, please?”
      “Could you lower your voice, please?”

      If it’s too quiet, we can say:
      “Could you speak up, please?”

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