Please Make It Stop

I don’t want to seem peevish, but will somebody please tell me when speaking “about” a topic became speaking “to” it? Does this preening, pompous little affectation bother any of the rest of you as much as it does me?

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  1. Charles says

    Well, I can’t really speak to the topic at hand, but I have to agree with you.

    (Did I get it right? I don’t think I’ve had quite as much exposure to this phenomenon.)

    Posted January 12, 2010 at 2:57 am | Permalink
  2. Jesse Kaplan says

    No. I’m surprised it bothers you. It could be overdone, but it is after all a reduction in syllables; moreover, were one to be difficult, one might point out that speaking “about” a topic can be construed as splattering speaking all about, at which point one might insist the speaker shorten it up and speak TO the topic. I’m not giving this much thought, but I think I mostly use it in writing and in this negative way: i.e., “Peter’s point doesn’t speak to the topic at hand” seems more pointed than, “Peter’s point isn’t about the topic at hand.”

    Posted January 12, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    I am not all that concerned about one extra syllable, but I can see your point. The conceptual bridge between the two would be “address”, as in “Peter’s point doesn’t address the topic at hand.” (Address does indeed have a meaning that could be defined as “speak to”.)

    Nevertheless, we got along fine without this ostentatious usage of “speak to” until quite recently; we just used “address” as above, or we would say something like “Peter’s response is completely irrelevant to the topic at hand”, or “Peter’s response is a flaming non-sequitur”, or “don’t even listen to Peter, he’s a raving moonbat.”

    And when we wanted to offer an opinion, we’d use “about”, as in Richard Nixon’s “Let me say this about that.”

    In customary usage, “speak to” has the listener as the direct object, as in “I’ll speak to the doctor about ordering your new prosthesis.”

    In this new usage, however, the sentence has no direct object at all, because the speaker is still speaking to the listener, but about the subject at hand. Yuck.

    I think it is stuffy and pretentious, and I hate it.

    Posted January 12, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Jesse Kaplan says

    I agree that some of the alternatives in your second paragraph, while increasingly wordy, are counterbalanced by increasing pointedness. I would insert “speak to” between “address” and “completely irrelevant to,” which interestingly uses “to,” on your sliding scale. “Doesn’t speak to…” abandons the politeness of “doesn’t address,” inflecting a kind of Potteresque unease, without leaving any tangible spoor of rudeness to support legitimate umbrage. And it’s pithy. I wonder what Peter thinks?

    Posted January 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Well, next time I speak to him, I’ll ask.

    Posted January 12, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink