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.
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
- speak Russian NOT
- 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.
- tell the truth NOT
speak the truthor talk the truth
- tell a lie NOT
speak a lieor talk a lie
- tell a story NOT
speak a storyor talk a story.
Now try this quick quiz to see how well you can use speak and talk:
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See index: Confusing Words