Common mistakes: Use "speak" correctly and impressively

The verbs speaksay, talk and tell all have to do with making words come out of your mouth. Their meanings are so similar that many non-native speakers are confused about when, and how, to use each one. We've written about "Say or tell" and "Say or talk" in previous blog posts, so let's look now at speak.

Speak vs. talk

Speak is often used in the same way as talk, but speak is more formal. For example,

A. Our boss talked to us about the budget.

and,

B. Our boss spoke to us about the budget.

are both correct. You'll choose A or B based on the context.

  • Is it an informal meeting? Then use A.
  • If the meeting is more formal (or your boss is), then B is more appropriate.

This is also true in the case of a speech.

  • If it's more informal, like a TEDtalk, then it's fine to use talk.

"She gave a great talk at today's workshop."

  • In a more formal setting, however, use speak.

"The President will speak to the nation later today."

2. When referring to languages, you can only use speak.

"Do you speak English?"
"No, but I do speak Spanish."

Speak vs. tell

The verbs speak and tell are also similar, in that both refer to talking to someone about something. But the grammatical structures and meanings are different.

A. I want to speak to you about the budget for next year.

B. I have to tell you about the party last night!

Notice that the preposition "to" is used after speak, but not after tell. In terms of the meaning, again, speak is more formal.

  • If you want to talk (to someone} formally (about something), use speak to, as in A.
    • Speak to is also used for reprimanding someone: "I need to speak to you about your behavior!"
  • If you simply want to relay information, then use tell (B).

10 common phrasal verbs and idioms with speak

Make sure you know all the common phrasal verbs [verb+preposition; for example, "speak for..."] and a few idioms with "speak". Then you'll speak not only correctly, but also clearly and impressively.

  • speak to: "I spoke to her last night."
  • speak with: "They don't want to speak with the press."
  • speak of: "I'd never heard her speak of her family before."
  • speak for: "I speak for everyone when I say we'll miss you!"
  • speak up: "You need to speak up so we can hear you."
  • speak out: "The teenager spoke out about climate change at the rally."

  • speak your mind (say what you're thinking): "Feel free to speak your mind in meetings."

  • speak in favor of/against: "The candidate spoke in favor of ending the war."

  • speak well/highly of: "He spoke well of the new hire."
  • generally/roughly/strictly/broadly/relatively speaking: "I'd say, generally speaking, the students have done well this year."

Be sure to check out our blog posts on "Say or Talk" and "Say or Tell" so you can get the whole picture on these four commonly confused words.

As always, know the rules doesn't mean you can actually use them. So, in your next lesson, try using "speak" in a variety of ways.