The Grammarphobia Blog

A few telling remarks

Q: Here’s one that’s been bugging me. When referring to something written, is it fair game to use the verbs “say,” “tell,” “talk,” and “speak”? I’m thinking of a sentence like this: “She told me in an email she’d be late.” And, by extension, can a watch or a radio say something? For example, “My watch says we’re five minutes late.”

A: All of the verbs you mention – “say,” “tell,” “talk,” and “speak” – can be used to refer to written as well as oral communications. Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say (see what I mean?) about each of them.

(1) “Say”: One meaning is “to utter or pronounce (a specified word or words, or an articulate sound). Also, in wider sense, used of an author or a book, with quoted words as object.” The word is used “of a speaker, writer; also of a literary composition, a proverb, etc.”

So well-established is this sense of “say,” according to the OED, that “its use with reference to written expression does not ordinarily, like the similar use of speak, involve any consciousness of metaphor.”

As for whether a watch or a radio can say something, this is a legitimate usage too. The OED notes that “say” can be used “with an inanimate item as subject: to communicate or represent; esp. of a clock, calendar, etc., to show (a certain time or date); of a notice, to state (a certain message).”

(2) “Tell”: One of the definitions given is “to make known by speech or writing; to communicate (information, facts, ideas, news, etc.); to state, announce, report, intimate.” No problem there either.

(3) “Talk”: The primary meaning is of course to communicate by using speech. But the OED says it is also used “by extension: To convey information in some other way, as by writing, with the fingers, eyes, etc.”

(4) “Speak”: Principally, this means “to utter or pronounce words or articulate sounds; to use or exercise the faculty of speech; to express one’s thoughts by words.” But another meaning is “to state or declare in writing, etc.”

And here’s another use: “Of a writer, literary composition, etc.: To make a statement or declaration in words; to state or say.” And “speak of” means “to mention, or discourse upon, in speech or writing.”

Although it’s fine to say a book “speaks” or “talks” of something, I think it’s venturing a little too far into metaphor to use those verbs with a newspaper. A newspaper article or columnist may “speak” or “talk,” but I’m not ready to accept that a newspaper itself can.

How about other inanimate physical objects? Can they speak or talk? Only if they produce sounds, like radios, TVs, smartphones, computers and so on.

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