Speaking to

I freely admit it: I am a grammar nerd. If there is a perfectly good word, term or grammatical construction in existence for what you are trying to say, you just don’t get to make up another one. Current bugbear: people wanting to “speak to” a topic. “We’ll be asking Professor So-and-so to speak to the issue of *** later on”. Really? What is it the issue of *** needs to hear? And can we go and find coffee while they sort that out between them?

Unfortunately, I’m beginning to think there’s more to this than an annoying prepositional transgression. There seem to be an awful lot of people who really do talk to their own ideas rather than to other people. Talking to other people about an idea means taking into account one’s audience and being prepared for a response – if only a few rolled eyeballs or some blank looks (the other option is talking at people which is just rude). At its best, it means laying that idea open to development, reality testing, challenge and change, through bouncing it against other human beings. It’s called conversation, and it can take us places.

Even talking to oneself (something else I’ll admit to) has something of that effect. I can judge much better how ridiculous I’m being when I say things out loud (obviously so can everyone else). But talking to an idea seems dismally sterile. Ideas don’t listen, or challenge, or answer back – especially if they’re your own pet ones. Speaking ‘to’ hot topics like land restitution, gender justice and religion is especially popular and especially unhelpful. It’s far less threatening to speak to ideas than to people. You can set up your audience just as you like, arranging who and what they are and then shooting them down for it. If any real people get caught in the crossfire, well, you weren’t talking to them anyway. Social media is an especially good platform for this, as your actual audience is not immediately visible, and can therefore be represented in your imagination as you wish.

Maybe we should all rethink to whom (or what) we are speaking these days, and make it real people more often. It’s scarier, but also safer; harder, but more meaningful.

*My apologies to everyone I know who innocently and with no malign intention professes to speak ‘to’ one issue or another, with full consideration of and courtesy towards the sentient listeners in their audience (I’d far rather you used the more correct and fully adequate ‘about’, but that’s up to you).






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