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Confusing words 7

I spoke about this subject last week.


The problem here is that the meanings of the verbs talk and speak are annoyingly similar. They certainly confuse not only students but native speakers too. It is not even wrong to say Paul spoke to Fred yesterday or Paul talked to Fred yesterday.

The general rule is this. You speak a foreign language and you speak to a group of people. The verb describes the actual ability to speak, or using your voice to say words. What you say, what those words or the message of those words are about, is not important.

But you can talk to a person about a subject, using language to express your thoughts and feelings about it.

Now you could speak about a subject, but here this suggests a one-way conversation only – you speaking and others listening. It does not usually tell us the details about the subject to be talked about. However, many native speakers do often use ‘speak’ with details of the subject when talking informally: I spoke about the game last week and the problems the referee had. (Standard English would prefer talked about the game last week.)

If you are still not too sure about the differences, then read this amusing example: Imagine a room that is very warm. Somebody in the room is so hot that they can no longer stand up and fall to the floor. Another person, who knows nothing about First Aid, rushes up to the fallen individual and says to their face: ‘Speak to me! Speak to me!’ (meaning: say some words to me! Any words so I know you’re conscious and/or alive!)


If they say ‘Talk to me! Talk to me!’, then our poor person might weakly say… ‘What about? Football?’ before falling unconscious again…

But informal spoken English is quite happy to accept I talked about this last time or I spoke about this last time.

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