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This is a thing that's been grating on me for a fair few months. It seems like a new trend among a type of politician that reminds me of the type of language I would hear in a Charismatic/Pentecostal type of church.

I have attached a screenshot of an example that I found on Facebook, proving that it is spreading through society and it bothers me because it is bad grammar (and because of the culture it reminds me of - maybe there is more to it than that).

This is what the lady has said in the screenshot:

"Does anybody have an article that speaks to the cruelty in the wool industry in NZ?"

Now, I know that what she is asking is whether anybody has an article that discusses the topic of cruelty with regards to the wool industry because it is posted on a vegan page and it is obvious that she is in need of information to support her opinions that there is cruelty in the wool industry. The language that bothers me is that she has said she wants an article that speaks to the cruelty in the wool industry whereas she should have said that she wants an article that speaks about the cruelty in the wool industry (or, one that speaks with regards to the cruelty in the wool industry, etc). I don't understand how this vernacular expression of "speaking to" a topic has found its way into popular language in those circles, but it bothers me because it seems to be an invalid form of language - a topic is something to be spoken about, not spoken to.

Anyhow, because I am astute and serious, but I am not an expert on language, I reckon I ought to ask about it among people who have more experience with the right and wrong of language. Can you see why I am being distracted by the language they are using? Is there some rule in the English language that makes it valid to say that you are going to "speak to" the topic when you are really intending to speak to a person about the topic?

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Anthony of NZIs there some rule in the English language that makes it valid to say that you are going to "speak to" the topic when you are really intending to speak to a person about the topic?

Rules are for wimps. The big dogs shoot from the hip, but they often wind up making mixed metaphors when they do.

Your question is about the use of a word, and that can only be examined through a winnowing of the corpus, or by looking it up in the Oxford English Dictionary where experts have already done that, leaving out the illiteracies of journalists and politicians for the most part.

They list our "speak to" under the verb "speak" in "phrasal verbs". Their definition is "To treat of or deal with, to discuss or comment on, (a subject) in speech or writing." They show citations back to 1610, including Jonathan Swift in 1735. It is not the kind of thing that ever comes up in daily conversation. It is a scholarly locution that takes some getting used to—at least it took me a while after I married a historian. It is nonetheless perfectly correct, time-honored and standard.

The phrase is in some abridged dictionaries, too, but oddly not the American Heritage Dictionary.

"to address one's remarks" - https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/speak

"to talk about something" - https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/speak-to-sth (Cambridge calls it "mainly US", which the OED does not. By the way, this Cambridge site is excellent for phrasal verbs.)

Anthony of NZThis is a thing that's been grating on me for a fair few months.

I noticed it a few years ago, in the UK.

Anthony of NZIt seems like a new trend among a type of politician

Them and people in broadcast media.

Anthony of NZa topic is something to be spoken about, not spoken to.

That's an excellent point.

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Thank you for this well-prepared answer! It helps me to understand that the problem is not new and to understand why those who speak that way are continuing to speak that way .

I can see that you have given links to dictionaries that list its usage in common language, although I was not able to access the Oxford English Dictionary to see the examples you have mentioned. I am comfortable to assume that they are excellent examples.

However, I do still need to understand more about why it has been considered good language, or as you have said "perfectly correct":

anonymous It is nonetheless perfectly correct, time-honored and standard.

I am not interested in accepting whether it is standard or time-honoured, only whether it is correct. My reason for doing so is because I recognise that the majority of people are not interested in ensuring the correctness of a matter before accepting it and establishing standards by it.

Those who go on to say that they are speaking to a topic must surely have to convince themselves that the expression makes sense -- unless they are so shallow that they really do want to subject the hearers to nonsense only because they believe it asserts their academic superiority (according to what I have been led to assume at this stage - thus, I must continue to investigate!).

anonymous It is not the kind of thing that ever comes up in daily conversation. It is a scholarly locution that takes some getting used to—at least it took me a while after I married a historian.

Therefore, since you have managed to get used to it (and you have even grown to say that it is "perfectly correct", giving references as proof), I wonder if you can help me to understand how I may see it as being correct.

I think that my question hinges not so much on the word "speak" as a verb, but on the word "to" as a preposition:

https://wordtype.org/of/to

Eg: "He devoted himself to education.", "I was nice to him, he was cruel to her,"

See, the use of the word "to" as a preposition to a topic (in this case the topic is "cruelty") simply does not make sense.

I cannot understand how someone might think it is correct to say that they are looking for someone who speaks to the cruelty, when what they are really meaning to say is that they want to find someone who speaks about the cruelty.

How can it be considered "perfectly correct" to speak to a topic since a topic is immaterial? (given that a topic is not a person or a thing that has any faculty of hearing).

Am I wrong to be of an opinion that because a topic is a philosophical construct, it cannot be "spoken to".

Anthony of NZa new trend

Not at all.

As I see it, "to speak to (a topic)" means to address it, for example, as a problem — in other words, in some sense to debate it by taking the side of those in favor of a topic or the side of those against it. Or, in some cases, to explain the topic or to respond to it with some discussion.

The idiom has been around for as long as I can remember.

Anthony of NZit bothers me because it seems to be an invalid form of language

It's not invalid. Maybe you just need to relax. Or rejoice: You've found an idiom that is new to you. Emotion: smile

Anthony of NZCan you see why I am being distracted by the language they are using?

Yes. You are unfamiliar with the idiom. That can be very distracting until you get used to it.

Anthony of NZIs there some rule in the English language that makes it valid to say that you are going to "speak to" the topic when ...

What sort of rule would that be? You know, don't you, that there is no such thing as the book of rules of the English language?

Anthony of NZwhen you are really intending to speak to a person about the topic?

As already mentioned above, it's more subtle than just speaking to someone about a topic. It's a more nuanced use of "speak to".

CJ

Anthony of NZI am not interested in accepting whether it is standard or time-honoured, only whether it is correct.

This is circular logic — chicken-and-egg talk. Where usage is concerned, being "standard" presumes being correct. Remember, there's no "Book of Rules" for the English language.

Anthony of NZunless they are so shallow that they really do want to subject the hearers to nonsense only because they believe it asserts their academic superiority

It sounds like you're angry at yourself for not knowing the idiom "to speak to (a topic)". Please relax. It's all going to be OK. Emotion: smile

Anthony of NZthe use of the word "to" as a preposition to a topic (in this case the topic is "cruelty") simply does not make sense.

No, it doesn't make sense if you don't realize that "speak" in "speak to a topic" includes the idea of "respond", which does take the preposition "to".

Can anyone here speak/respond to the issue of homelessness in our city?

There are plenty of other cases in English where the choice of preposition will seem strange to some people. If the only usage of 'by' you are familiar with is found in "Please sit by me", then the sentence "Please finish this by Monday" is bound to drive you crazy.

Anthony of NZAm I wrong to be of an opinion that because a topic is a philosophical construct, it cannot be "spoken to".

If you are talking about the usage in which a person speaks to another person, then of course you are not wrong. It would be crazy to initiate a conversation with an inanimate object or with an abstraction like 'goodness' or 'strength'.

But that's not the usage we're talking about in this thread.

CJ

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Anthony of NZAm I wrong to be of an opinion that because a topic is a philosophical construct, it cannot be "spoken to".

Yes, you are wrong. That a locution is not common in your dialect does not make it wrong. Your problem is that there is already the phrase "speak to" in your dialect (and mine) that means something else.

Take a parallel example. In my dialect, to stand for something can mean to tolerate it, usually used in the negative: "Mary would no longer stand for John's nose-picking." It can also mean to symbolize a concept, of course. (Right there you have variation in the meaning of the preposition "for" that can only be resolved by context.) In Britain, and I daresay New Zealand, you can stand for public office. We "run" for office. You have no idea how strange it sounds to me and my fellow Yanks to say that someone stood for Parliament. But we are forced in the end to realize that it's our problem and no one else's if we can't get used to it.

As for "to", I dare you to define the word in your "speak to" meaning "talk to". Back to the OED, where they devote 38 (!) pages to the word "to". Welcome to the wonderful world of words. It is a bottomless sea.

It is not solved by naming it an idiomatic expression:

It is the grammatical correctness of the expression that is being questioned, not whether it is literally possible to achieve (ironically!).

CalifJimAs I see it, "to speak to (a topic)" means to address it, for example, as a problem — in other words, in some sense to debate it by taking the side of those in favor of a topic or the side of those against it. Or, in some cases, to explain the topic or to respond to it with some discussion.

Why did you remove the examples you previously gave? I had been considering how to respond, and now I find that you have removed the parts that I was going to address. It is interesting to see that the way I have just used the word "address" is exactly the same as the way you have used the word "address" synonymically for "speak to" - which I concur is an acceptable synonym for the given context. However, the idiom "speak to" and the word "address" are not spelled the same way, and therefore they do exist as different functions in language. I will now need to consider why I have found it acceptable to use the word "address" as a verb when the thing being addressed is not the recipient of the response, and also to ponder why the speaker might not think it more appropriate to address the topic.

I only remember one idiom of the two that you gave as an example: "over the moon", so I will explain why the problem is not solved by simply saying that "speak to" is an idiom in the same way that "over the moon" is.

My grievance is not that the expression "speak to [the topic]" has become idiomatic, but that it is invalid grammar. You can see that I am interpreting the expression to mean "speak about [the topic]", which appears to be exactly what is intended when the idiom is used. So my question is more about establishing an understanding of why the person chooses to say "speak to" rather than "speak about".

The example of being "over the moon" does not work as a solution to the problem, because as you will see soon, the grammatical error I see in the phrase "speak to" does not exist in the phrase "over the moon":

CalifJimWhat sort of rule would that be? You know, don't you, that there is no such thing as the book of rules of the English language?

Although there is no universal document of the rules of the English language, still there are rules that apply to it. It is necessary to have rules in order to judge whether one's use of the language is right or wrong - which incidentally is exactly why language tests exist and why schools are devoted to the teaching of the language.

Although I haven't found a direct example to the rule I am looking for in this case, I have found another case of a similar occurrence as an example.

Consider the case of a certain class of speaker that might say "would of" and "could of". It seems that they have learned the expression by hearing others say similar things, and after hearing it repeatedly they have assumed the meaning of the expression by observing a pattern of context, thereby forming an idiom. This is of course the natural way that a person learns to speak through childhood by observing the way people are using language around them. However, it seems that a phonetic error has caused a grammatical error in their use of the idiom - where someone has originally said "would've" (a conjunction of "would have"), the hearer has inferred a vowel in place of the apostrophe and has mistakenly begun to say "would of" instead of "would have". Over time, it has become common to find people who say and write "would of" intentionally while assuming that it carries the same meaning as that which belongs to the phrase "would have".

More discussion can be found at this url, for example: https://painintheenglish.com/case/4715 /

There is no such error found in the expression "over the moon" - but it does provide a segway into my own question:

Seeing as the usage of the phrase "speak to [the topic]" likewise carries the same meaning as that which belongs to the phrase "speak about [the topic]", and the one to whom the speaker is intending to speak about the topic is in fact the intended recipient of their speech, why is it deemed acceptable for them to say that they are speaking to the topic when in fact they are speaking to a person about the topic? It is only correct for them to say that they are speaking about the topic, especially in contexts such as those in broadcast media where the person being spoken to is present and is in fact the very one to whom the idiom is being spoken!

anonymousTake a parallel example. In my dialect, to stand for something can mean to tolerate it, usually used in the negative: "Mary would no longer stand for John's nose-picking." It can also mean to symbolize a concept, of course. (Right there you have variation in the meaning of the preposition "for" that can only be resolved by context.)

It would be interesting to understand how it can make sense, and to understand that the antonym of stand is to fall. So if someone takes sides on a matter, they are said to be taking a stand on that matter. It shows that they have established their position on the hope and belief that they will not be shaken from their position.

How this relates to the matter of tolerating a thing: a person who uses the phrase to express that they will not tolerate a thing shows that they are in fact standing against that thing.

Mary began standing against John's nose-picking. Mary had probably never stood for John's nose-picking, but had suppressed her stance somewhat for a while until eventually she found the culmination of pressures too threatening to her sense of stability in her position on the matter, that she had to rise up and declare her position against John. Obviously Mary perceives that she is sufficiently entitled to do so, and has been forgiving John all-the-while, albeit unwillingly, it would seem.

anonymousYou have no idea how strange it sounds to me and my fellow Yanks to say that someone stood for Parliament.

I understand that to make sense in context of "stand" as a verb. Consider that the action of standing means to elevate oneself to a platform for attention. This is why it is usually proper to stand when giving speech to a group, and likewise in a trial, the one being summoned to give evidence is called to the stand.

Therefore the action of standing for parliament is technically correct, however being an unfamiliar expression may sound strange. The example of speaking to a topic when you are speaking about a topic isn't really a parallel example, because as I have shown, I can understand how it is grammatically correct to stand for a thing or to stand for Parliament whereas I cannot see how it is grammatically correct to say that you are speaking to a matter when in fact you are speaking about a matter to a person - and that person is the one whom is being spoken to, about the matter. Just the fact that it is common does not make it right - it is not altogether uncommon for a majority to stand on the wrong side of a matter.

anonymousAs for "to", I dare you to define the word in your "speak to" meaning "talk to". Back to the OED, where they devote 38 (!) pages to the word "to". Welcome to the wonderful world of words. It is a bottomless sea.

I would quite like to see it, however I do not have access to that resource. I imagine the word "to" as containing intrinsic and inalienable qualities of "toward" - which is why I cannot understand how a person might speak toward a thing that they are speaking about - especially in a context when they are speaking about that thing toward someone else!

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