Speak, Talk, Chat, Explain

The English language has many words with similar—if not the same—definitions. If you look up ‘speak,’ ‘talk’ will be the first synonym, but is it really the same? No. Speaking is gentler and more erudite. “We were speaking about language and it all began to sound like poetry… We were talking and we all started to laugh…”

‘Talking’ is both more casual and stronger. “We have to talk about this” is not the start of an easy conversation.

My role as a Conversation partner/tutor in an English-as-a-Second-Language program often pushes me to explain the subtle differences in word usage. Having to explain the unexplainable is a good exercise for a writer. I often find that I’m learning as much as the student. I try to integrate these elusive word choice differences into my dialog in fiction.

Is the character educated, restrained, and only a bit angry when she says, “Let’s speak about this later”? Is she distressed to the point of boiling over when she insists, “We’re going to talk about this later”? Yes, I think so. But it’s hard to explain why the difference seems clear to me.

“We need to chat about this later” feels casual and cautionary at the same time, and I think it’s the tone of voice that provides the distinction, largely because CHAT is now so closely associated with online exchanges. These can become brusque, snarky, and sometimes violent, as people blow off steam with each click, click, click.

Writing an email may seem like an immediate and careless form of written speech, but it is many times more thoughtful than the lightning speed of chat exchanges punched out on phones. There is no time for reflection or even to catch the oddball word substitutions that spellcheck programs interject. This speed heats up anger and can create problems where there should be none.

Sometimes it’s best to pick up the phone and actually TALK (speak, chat, explain, communicate, cajole, seduce) and even ENJOY a conversation.

My cat makes his point!


    • Candy Korman

      Me too!
      That’s the primary motivation for me volunteering to help immigrants to the U.S. become more proficient in English. For years I struggled with Spanish and Italian, never getting anywhere near competent—let alone fluent. In my travels, I’ve met many people fluent in 2, 3, 4 or more languages. English is the 2nd or 3rd language for all those people. That’s enabled me to get by on a sprinkle of phrases that show that I’m trying to be polite or meeting them halfway if their English isn’t perfect, BUT…. I have to admit relief when they respond to me in English, when it’s anything more complicated than ordering breakfast. So, a few years ago I decided to “pay back” for my advantage as a native speaker of the “international language” of English. I’ve had some funny conversations about the craziness of English with Russian, Persian, and Spanish speakers!

  1. Yes, I don’t think there’s another language on earth that has as many word choices as English. Sometimes when I’m writing, I’ll choose one word over the next not for meaning, but for ‘sound’. For example, ‘talk’ sounds hard and quite harsh to me, whereas ‘speak’ feels softer and less aggressive.
    With ‘start’ and ‘begin’, however, it’s not so much the sound as the educational context. To me, a more educated character would use ‘begin’ rather than ‘start’.
    lol – this is what makes writing [and reading] so much fun. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      I go through the same process when writing. Explaining it to my English as a second language conversation partner is another thing entirely. Some of this is subtle and it’s splitting hairs.

      “Let’s not speak about this…” it’s formal and ominous.
      “Do you want to talk about this now?” it’s informal and could be a bit angry.
      “We can chat about that later…” casual, but not really comfortable.