The Grammarphobia Blog

So to speak

Q: At the company where I work, the project managers use the phrase “speak to” like this: “Would you be able to speak to this question?” Is that usage correct? Or is it just another “office-ism”?

A: People use the expression “speak to,” meaning to address an issue, in two different ways.

The first usage, as in the example “increased crime speaks to the need for vigilance,” goes back to the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In this sense, “speak to” means to influence or to constitute evidence of something.

The second usage, as in “let me speak to that,” also goes back at least as far as the 17th century. The OED cites several published examples of “speak to” in the sense of to deal with or discuss or comment on. The first citation is from 1610: “I desire them therefore to speake to these foure points.”

So both usages are well-established. But these days they’re also much overused, especially in muddy or imprecise writing. I find the second one the most annoying. When I hear people say, “Let me speak to that,” I expect them to speak around a point without really addressing it. In other words, here comes a half-baked comment.

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