Language Pitfalls

Learning Objectives

Describe the different language pitfalls you need to avoid as a speaker.

Language can either inspire your listeners or turn them off very quickly.  An important step in revising and reviewing your speech is to ensure that you’ve avoided any language pitfalls that may cause you to lose your audience.

Exclusionary and Offensive Language

While we tend to think of extreme and obvious language choices such as profanity, racial slurs, and other forms of hate speech when considering this pitfall, language is constantly changing to reflect the culture and society that uses it. As a result, some words and phrases that may not have been considered exclusionary or offensive in the past are rightly recognized as such now. As a speaker, it is your responsibility to learn what may be considered exclusionary and offensive before you deliver your speech. For more on the specifics of this topic, see the section on inclusive language elsewhere in this course.

Inappropriate Language

As with anything in life, there are positive and negative ways of using language. One of the first concepts a speaker needs to think about when looking at language use is appropriateness. By appropriate, we mean whether the language is suitable or fitting for ourselves as the speaker, our audience, the speaking context, and the speech itself.

  • Yourself. One of the first questions to ask yourself is whether the language you plan on using in a speech fits with your own speaking pattern. Not all language choices are appropriate for all speakers. The language you select should be suitable for you, not someone else.
  • The Audience. Consider whether the language you are choosing is appropriate for your specific audience. Let’s say that you’re an engineering student. If you’re giving a presentation in an engineering class, you can use language that other engineering students will know. On the other hand, if you use that engineering vocabulary in a public speaking class, many audience members will not understand you.
  • The Context. Identify what the expectations of communication are in the particular context of your speech. Recall that the speaking context includes the occasion, the time of day, the mood of the audience, and other factors in addition to the physical location. The language you may employ if you’re addressing a student assembly in a high school auditorium will differ from the language you would use at a business meeting in a hotel ballroom. If you’re giving a speech at an outdoor rally, you cannot use the same language you would use in a classroom. Take the entire speaking context into consideration when you make the language choices for your speech.
  • The Speech Itself. The appropriateness of language involves whether the language is appropriate for your specific topic. If your speech topic is the dual residence model of string theory, it makes sense to expect that you will use more sophisticated language than if your topic was a basic introduction to the physics of, say, sound or light waves.

Inaccurate Word Usage

We learn words by experiencing them. Reading words without ever hearing them can often lead to mispronunciation. For instance, words like ennui are often mispronounced. Furthermore, when we learn words by hearing them without ever reading or looking up the denotative meaning, we sometimes mishear or conflate what we hear with what we already know, resulting in embarrassing inaccuracies when we later use that word.

When speakers use incorrect words, it can, at the very least, confuse and distract the audience, and at worst, lower their credibility with the audience. Below are four common ways that speakers use incorrect and inaccurate words.

  • Words that do not exist. This error occurs when we mishear or conflate two words to inadvertently create a new, nonexistent word rather than using the correct word for what we mean. Common examples are conversate and supposably.
  • Not knowing the definition of a word. This error happens when we only learn a word by hearing it and rather than learning the actual definition, we mistake those common words for the actual word that means what we intend. Common examples are bemused, compelled, travesty, ambivalent, and literal.
  • Malapropism. A malapropism is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical statement. For example, Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott once claimed that no one “is the suppository of all wisdom” (rather than the repository, or place where things are stored).
  • Eggcorns. An eggcorn is a word or phrase that results from a mishearing or misinterpretation of another because it sounds similar and seems logical or plausible. An example is the common eggcorn “all intensive purposes” which should be “all intents and purposes.” An eggcorn often involves replacing an unfamiliar, archaic, or obscure word with a more common or modern word. An extensive database of eggcorns is maintained here.

Creating “I versus You” Scenarios

There may be appropriate times to separate yourself as the speaker from the audience, for instance when telling a personal story. Using first-person singular to refer to yourself and second person to refer to the audience throughout the speech, however, creates an I and you that can create a divide between speaker and audience. This is often how experts are disparaged and labeled as “elitist” or “know it all” by the audience. Whenever possible, use the first-person plural, “let’s explore,” “we will,” “our best interest,” to enhance your credibility with the audience.