Using Language Well: Avoiding Language Pitfalls

There are other aspects of language you should consider when thinking about how language choices impact the audience’s perception of you.

Profanity

It seems obvious, but this fact bears repeating—you should refrain from using profanity in your speeches. One of the primary rules of all aspects of public speaking (audience analysis, delivery, topic selection, etc.) is that you should never ignore audience expectations. Audiences do not expect speakers to use profane language, and in most cases, doing so will hurt your credibility with the audience. It is true that certain audiences will not mind an occasional profane word used for effect, but unless you are speaking to a group of people with whom you are very familiar, it is difficult to know for sure whether the majority of the audience will respond positively or negatively to such language use. If you even offend one person in an audience and that person happens to be an opinion leader for other audience members, the negative impact of your language on that one person could end up having a much larger influence on the audience’s perception of you.

I wanted to cut down on the profanity, because I think I’m funnier without sayin’ a lot of cuss words. ~ Chris Tucker

Exaggeration

Speakers should also be careful about exaggeration. Hyperbole is the use of moderate exaggeration for effect and is an acceptable and useful language strategy. What is not acceptable, however, is the use of exaggeration to an extent that you risk losing credibility. For example, while it is acceptable to note that “it snows in South Texas as often as pigs fly,” it would not be acceptable to state that “It never snows in South Texas.” In the first case, you are using hyperbole as a form of exaggeration meant to creatively communicate an idea. In the second case, your use of exaggeration is stating something that is not true. It is unwise to use words such as “never” and “always” when speaking. It may be the case that speakers make this mistake accidentally because they are not careful with regard to word choice. We so easily throw words like “always” and “never” around in everyday conversation that this tendency transfers onto our public speeches when we are not thinking carefully about word choice.

There are two problems with the careless use of exaggeration. First, when you use words like “always” and “never,” it is not likely that the statement you are making is true—as very few things always or never happen. Therefore, audiences might mistake your careless use of language for an attempt to purposefully misrepresent the truth. Second, when you suggest that something “always” or “never” happens, you are explicitly challenging your audience members to offer up evidence that contradicts your statement. Such a challenge may serve to impact your credibility negatively with the audience, as an audience member can make you look careless and/or silly by pointing out that your “always” or “never” statement is incorrect.

Exaggeration is a blood relation to falsehood and nearly as blamable. ~ Hosea Ballou

Powerless Language

Finally, think about using powerful language when speaking. Because women are more likely than men to be socialized to take the feelings of others into account, women tend to use less powerful language than men.[1] Both men and women, however, can use language that communicates a lack of power. In some cases speakers use powerless language that communicates uncertainty. For example, a speaker might say “It seems to me that things are getting worse,” or “In my estimation, things are getting worse.” These phrases communicate a lack of certainty in your statements. It is likely that in the case of these speeches, the speaker is arguing that some problem is getting worse, therefore more powerful language would be acceptable. Simply state that “Things are getting worse” and don’t weaken your statement with phrases that communicate uncertainty.

Speakers should also beware of hedges, tag questions, and qualifiers. Examples of hedges would include, “I thought we should,” “I sort of think,” or “Maybe we should.” Use more powerful statements such as “We should” or “I believe.” In addition, speakers should avoid the use of tag questions, which are quick questions at the end of a statement that also communicate uncertainty. People who use tag questions might end a statement with “Don’t you think?” or “Don’t you agree?” rather than flatly stating what they believe because it can appear to audiences that you are seeking validation for your statements. Qualifiers such as “around” or “about” make your sentences less definitive, so generally avoid using them.

Interestingly, however, there are cases when using less powerful language may be useful. While a full discussion of these instances is out of the purview of this chapter, good speakers will recognize when they should use more or less powerful language. I tell my students that there are some cases when negotiation between two or more parties is the key and that in these instances using language that communicates complete certainty might impede fruitful negotiation because other parties may incorrectly perceive you as inflexible. On the other hand, in some cases you must “win” an argument or “beat” another speaker in order to even get to the negotiation table, and in those cases, the use of more powerful language may be warranted. It bears repeating that better speakers know how to use language in response to specific contexts in order to be successful, hence thinking about what contexts require more or less powerful language is always a good idea.

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. ~ Elie Wiesel

Incorrect Grammar

While the use of sexist or heterosexist language may imply some negative qualities about you to your audience, the use of incorrect grammar in your speech will explicitly communicate negative attributes about you quite clearly. There are four primary means by which incorrect grammar tends to make its way into speeches, including basic error, mispronunciations, regionalisms, and colloquialisms.

Basic errors occur when people make simple mistakes in grammar because of carelessness or a lack of knowledge. If you are unsure about the grammatical structure of a sentence, ask someone.

Although spoken English doesn’t obey the rules of written language, a person who doesn’t know the rules thoroughly is at a great disadvantage. ~ Marilyn vos Savant

President Bush behind a podium with the US seal

“Bush delivers his second Inaugural address” by Paul Morse. Public domain.

Practicing your speech in front of others can help you catch mistakes. Grammatical errors can also happen when speakers aren’t familiar enough with their speech. If you do not know your topic well and have not given yourself an adequate amount of time for practice, you may fumble some during your speech and use incorrect grammar that you normally wouldn’t use. One of the most regular critiques made of President George W. Bush is that he regularly makes grammatical errors in public. In one case President Bush stated, “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” In another instance he stated, “I have a different vision of leadership. A leadership is someone who brings people together.”[2] When President Bush makes these mistakes, many people take note and it gives his detractors ammunition to critique his ability to lead. Unlike President Bush, you do not have a team of public relations specialists ready to explain away your grammatical error so you should take great care to make sure that you’re prepared to speak.

Apparently Arnold was inspired by President Bush, who proved you can be a successful politician in this country even if English is your second language. ~ Conan O’Brien

In addition, you must be sure that you are pronouncing words correctly. In one instance I had a student who began discussing the philosopher Plato, except she pronounced his name “Platt-o” instead of “Play-toe.” I could see students glancing at each other and rolling their eyes in response to this mistake. Indeed, it was even difficult for me to pay attention after the mistake because it was such a blatant error. Making pronunciation mistakes, especially when you’re pronouncing words that the general public deems ordinary, can seriously impede your credibility. It was likely difficult for students to take this speaker’s remaining comments seriously after she’d made such a big mistake. If you’re unsure about how to pronounce a word, check with someone else or with the dictionary to make sure you’re pronouncing it correctly. In fact, many online dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster.com and Dictionary.com now include a function that allows you to hear how the word is pronounced. And if it’s a word you’re not used to saying, such as a technical or medical term, practice saying it out loud 10-20 times a day until you’re comfortable with the word. Remember that our mouths are machines and that our tongues, teeth, cheeks, lips, etc. all work together to pronounce sounds. When faced with a word that our mouths are not yet “trained” to say, it is more likely that we’ll mispronounce the word or stutter some on it during a speech. But if you practice saying the word out loud several times a day leading up to your speech, you’re less likely to make a mistake and your confidence will be boosted instead of hurt in the midst of your speech.

Remember: Y’all is singular. All y’all is plural. All y’all’s is plural possessive. ~ Kinky Friedman

Some grammar problems occur because people use regionalisms when speaking, which may pose problems for people in the audience not familiar with the terms being used. Regionalisms are customary words or phrases used in different geographic regions. For example, growing up in Texas I used “y’all,” while my students in Pennsylvania might use “youins” or “yins” to mean a group of people. In the South, many people use the phrase “Coke” to mean any soft drink (probably because Coco-Cola is headquartered in Atlanta), while in the Northeast a “Coke” might be called a “tonic” and in other regions it might be called a “pop” or “soda pop.” You must be careful when using regional terms because your audience may not interpret your message correctly if they are not familiar with the regionalism you’re using. Try to find terms that are broader in their use, perhaps using “you all” or “soft drink” instead of the regional terms you may be used to using in everyday conversations.

US Federal Regions

“Federal Standard Regions” by Belg4mit. Public domain.

Another grammar issue often linked to region is the use of colloquialisms. Colloquialisms are words or phrases used in informal speech but not typically used in formal speech. Using the word “crick” instead of “creek” is one example of a colloquialism, and in some areas “I’m getting ready to cook dinner” would be said, “I’m fixin’ to make dinner.” Colloquialisms can also be phrases that stem from particular regions. In some regions nice clothes are often referred to as your “Sunday best,” and in some areas, when people are preparing to vacuum, they note that they are getting ready to “red up the place” (make it ready for visitors).

Like regionalisms, an audience understanding your use of colloquialisms depends on their familiarity with the language tendencies of a certain geographic area, so steering clear of their use can help you make sure that your message is understood by your audience. Another problem that regionalisms and colloquialisms have in common is that some audience members may consider their use a sign of lesser intellect because they are not considered proper grammar, so you also risk leaving a bad impression of yourself with audience members if you make these language choices for a formal presentation.

I personally think we developed language because of our deep need to complain. ~ Lily Tomlin

Other Language Choices to Consider

Clichés are phrases or expressions that, because of overuse, have lost their rhetorical power. Examples include sayings such as “The early bird gets the worm” or “Making a mountain out of a molehill.” Phrases such as these were once powerful ways of communicating an idea, but because of overuse these phrases just don’t have the impact that they once had. Using clichés in your speeches runs the risk of having two negative attributions being placed on you by audience members. First, audience members may feel that your use of a cliché communicates that you didn’t take the speech seriously and/or were lazy in constructing it. Second, your audience members may perceive you as someone who is not terribly creative. Clichés area easy ways to communicate your message, but you might pay for that ease with negative feelings about you as a speaker from your audience. Try to avoid using clichés so that audiences are more likely to perceive you positively as a speaker.

Another consideration for speakers is whether or not to use language central to the popular culture of a time period. Whether we’re talking about “groovy, man” from the 1970s or “like totally awesome” from the 1980s, or “word to your mutha” from the 1990s, the language central to the popular culture of any time period is generally something to be avoided in formal public speaking. Like slang or profanity, language stemming from popular culture can be limited in its appeal. Some audiences may not understand it, some audiences may negatively evaluate you for using language that is too informal, and other audiences will have negative preconceived notions about “the kind of people” that use such language (e.g., “hippies” in the 1970s), and they will most likely transfer those negative evaluations onto you.


  1. Gamble, T. K. & Gamble, M. W. (2003). The gender communication connection. New York: Houghton-Mifflin.
  2. About.com (2011). Bushisms—U.S. President proves how difficult English really is! Retrieved from. http://esl.about.com/library/weekly/aa032301a.htm