Chapter 10: Language

10.1 – What Language Is and Does

The Ancient Romans who studied and taught rhetoric divided its study and process into five “canons”: invention, disposition, style, memory, and delivery. The term “style” does not refer to clothing styles, but language choices. Should a public speaker use very basic language because the audience is unfamiliar with the topic or more technical language with many acronyms, abbreviations, and jargon because the audience has expertise in the topic? What about academic language with abstract vocabulary or flowery, poetic language with lots of metaphors? Perhaps you have never thought about those questions, but they are ones that influence both the clarity of the message and the credibility a speaker will gain during the presentation.

Language is any formal system of gestures, signs, sounds, and symbols used or conceived as a means of communicating thought, either through written, enacted, or spoken means. Linguists believe there are far more than 6,900 languages and distinct dialects spoken in the world today (Anderson, 2012). The language spoken by the greatest number of people (as a first language) is Mandarin. Other widely spoken languages are English, Hindi, Spanish, and Arabic. English is spoken more widely because it is, by far, the most common second language.

Spoken language is more wordy and repetitive than written language needs to be or should be. It is accompanied by gestures, vocal emphasis, and facial expressions. Additionally, spoken language includes more personal pronouns and more expressive, emotional, colloquial, slang, and nonstandard words.

The study of language is, believe it or not, controversial. If you are an education, social sciences, pre-law, or English major, you will somewhere in your college career come up against this truth. While we use words everyday and don’t think about it, scholars in different fields concern themselves with how we choose words, why we choose words, what effect words have on us, and how the powerful people of the world use words. One theory of language, general semantics, says that meaning resides in the person using the word, not in the word (“Basic Understandings,” 2015). As a speaker, keep this mind, especially in regard to denotative and connotative meaning. Wrench, Goding, Johnson, and Attias (2011) use this example to explain the difference:

When we hear or use the word “blue,” we may be referring to a portion of the visual spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 440–490 nano-meters. You could also say that the color in question is an equal mixture of both red and green light. While both of these are technically correct ways to interpret the word “blue,” we’re pretty sure that neither of these definitions is how you thought about the word. When hearing the word “blue,” you may have thought of your favourite color, the color of the sky on a spring day, or the color of a really ugly car you saw in the parking lot. When people think about language, there are two different types of meanings that people must be aware of: denotative and connotative. (p. 407)

Denotative meaning is the specific meaning associated with a word. We sometimes refer to denotative meanings as dictionary definitions. The [scientific] definitions provided in the first two sentences of the quotation above are examples of definitions that might be found in a dictionary. Connotative meaning is the idea suggested by or associated with a word at a cultural or personal level. In addition to the examples above, the word “blue” can evoke many other ideas:

  • State of depression (feeling blue)
  • Indication of winning (a blue ribbon)
  • Side during the American Civil War (blues vs. grays)
  • Sudden event (out of the blue)
  • American states that lean toward the Democratic Party in their voting
  • A slang expression for obscenity (blue comedy)
  • A gang colour
  • In plural form, a genre of music (the blues)

Not only is language about who we are; it is about power or at least is used by powerful people. In fact, some educational and political theorists believe that language is all about power. For instance, euphemisms are often used to make something unpleasant sound more tolerable. In one of the more well-known examples of the use of euphemisms, the government commonly tries to use language to “soften” what many would see as bad. During the Vietnam War, “air support” was invented to cover the real meaning: “bombing.” When you hear “air support,” you probably think “planes bringing supplies,” not “bombing.”

Also of note, words change meaning over time, or more specifically, the meaning we attached to them changes. “Pretty” used to mean “clever” 250 years ago. “Prevent” meant to “precede,” not to keep from happening. Language is simply not static, as much as we might like it to be. One of the main reasons we find Shakespeare daunting is that so many of the Elizabethan words are either no longer used or they have changed meanings.

With regard to the use of language for power, even unknowingly, feminists in the 1970s argued that the common way we use English language was biased against women. King-sized means “big and powerful,” but “queen-sized” means “for overweight women.” “Master” was not equivalent to “mistress.” “Madame” has taken on a negative connotation, even though it should have been equivalent to “sir.” Many words referring to women had to add a suffix that was often “less than,” such as “-ess” or “-ette.” In the last 30 years we have gotten away from that, so that you often hear a female actor referred to as “actor” rather than “actress,” but old habits die hard.

Can you think of how advertisers choose words in a way that is meant to affect your thinking and see an object in different ways? Realtors sell “homes,” not houses. McDonald’s sells “Happy Meals,” even though it is essentially the same food they sell that are not “Happy Meals.” As you progress as a public speaker, you will become more aware of the power certain words have over audiences. An ethical communicator will use language in a way that encourages respect for others, freedom of thought, and informed decision making. First, however, a speaker should seek to meet the standards of clarity, effectiveness, appropriateness, and elegance in language.

10.2 – Standards for Language in Public Speaking

Achieving Clarity

The first aspect of clarity is concreteness. We usually think of concreteness as the opposite of abstraction. Language that evokes many different visual images in the minds of your audience is abstract language. Unfortunately, when abstract language is used, the images evoked might not be the ones you really want to evoke. A word such as “art” is very abstract; it brings up a range of mental pictures or associations: dance, theatre, painting, drama, a child’s drawing on a refrigerator, sculpture, music, and so on. When asked to identify what an abstract term like “art” means, 20 people will have 20 different ideas.

Related to the issue of specific versus abstract is the use of the right word. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” For example, the words “prosecute” and “persecute” are commonly confused, but not interchangeable. Two others are peremptory/pre-emptive and prerequisites/perquisites. Can you think of other such word pair confusion?

In the attempt to be clear, which is your first concern, you will also want to be simple and familiar in your language. Familiarity is a factor of attention; familiar language draws in the audience. Simple does not mean simplistic, but the avoidance of multi-syllable words. If a speaker said, “A collection of pre-adolescents fabricated an obese personification comprised of compressed mounds of minute aquatic crystals,” you might recognize it as “Some children made a snowman,” but maybe not. The language is not simple or familiar and, therefore, does not communicate well, although the words are correct and have the same meaning, technically.

Along with language needing to be specific and correct, language can use appropriate similes and metaphors to become clearer. Literal language does not use comparisons such as similes and metaphors; figurative language uses comparisons with objects, animals, activities, roles, or historical or literary figures. Literal language says, “The truck is fast.” Figurative language says “The truck is as fast as…“ or “The truck runs like…” or “He drives that truck like it’s the Indy 500.” Similes use some form of “like” or “as” in the comparisons. Metaphors are direct comparisons, such as “He is a racecar driver when he gets behind the wheel of that truck.”

For rhetorical purposes, metaphors are considered stronger, but both can help you achieve clearer language, if chosen wisely. However, in choosing metaphors and similes, speakers want to avoid clichés.

Clichés are expressions, usually similes, that are predictable. You know what comes next because they are overused and sometimes out of date. Clichés do not have to be linguistic—we often see clichés in movies, such as teen horror films where you know exactly what will happen next. You can easily think of many common clichés: “Scared out of my…” or “When life gives you lemons. . .” or “All is fair in….” If you filled in the blanks with “mind,” “make lemonade,” and “love and war,” those are clichés.

Clichés are not just a problem because they are overused and boring; they also sometimes do not communicate what you need, especially to audiences whose second language is English. “I will give you a ballpark figure” is not as clear as “I will give you an estimate,” and assumes the person is familiar with American sports. Therefore, they also will make you appear less credible in the eyes of the audience because you are not analyzing them and taking their knowledge, background, and needs into account.

Additionally, some clichés are so outdated that no one knows what they mean. “The puppy was as cute as a button” is an example. You might hear your great-grandmother say this, but who really thinks buttons are cute nowadays? Clichés are also imprecise.

In trying to avoid clichés, use language with imagery, or sensory language. This is language that makes the recipient smell, taste, see, hear, and feel a sensation. Think of the word “ripe.” What is “ripe?” Do ripe fruits feel a certain way? Smell a certain way? Taste a certain way? Ripe is a sensory word. Most words just appeal to one sense, like vision. Think of colour. How can you make the word “blue” more sensory? How can you make the word “loud” more sensory? How would you describe the current state of your bedroom to leave a sensory impression? How would you describe your favourite meal to leave a sensory impression? or a thunderstorm?


Jargon used in your profession or hobby should only be used with audiences who share your profession or hobby. Not only will the audience members who don’t share your profession or hobby miss your meaning, but they will feel that you are not making an honest effort to communicate or are setting yourself above them in intelligence or rank. Lawyers are often accused of using “legalese,” but other professions and groups do the same. Sometimes we are not even aware of our jargon and its inadvertent effects.


The whole point of slang is for a subculture or group to have its own code, almost like secret words. Once slang is understood by the larger culture, it is no longer slang and may be classified as “informal” or “colloquial” language. “Bling” was slang; now it’s in the dictionary. Sports have a great deal of slang used by the players and fans that then gets used in everyday language.

Complicated vocabulary

If a speaker used the word “recalcitrant,” some audience members would know the meaning or figure it out, but many would not. It would make much more sense for them to use a word readily understandable: “stubborn.” Especially in oral communication, we should use language that is immediately accessible. However, do not take this to mean “dumb down for your audience.” It means being clear and not showing off. For a speaker to say “I am cognizant of the fact that…” instead of “I know” or “I am aware of…” adds nothing to communication.

Profanity and cursing

Other than artistic or comedy venues, there are few places or times when profanity or cursing would be effective or useful with most audiences, so this kind of language is generally discouraged.


Another aspect of effectiveness is that your language should enhance your credibility. First, audiences trust speakers who use clear, vivid, respectful, engaging, and honest language. On the other hand, audiences tend not to trust speakers who use language that excludes others or who exhibit uneducated language patterns. All of us make an occasional grammatical or usage error. However, constant verb and pronoun errors and just plain getting words confused will hurt the audience’s belief that you are competent and knowledgeable. In addition, a speaker who uses language and references that are not immediately accessible or that are unfamiliar will have diminished credibility. Finally, you should avoid phrases such as “maybe” or  “I guess” in a speech. Credible speakers should know what they are talking about.

Rhetorical Techniques

Rhetorical techniques engage audiences and make ideas more attention-getting and memorable. Several such techniques are based on a form of repetition. There are too many to mention here, but you can refer to an Internet source for a longer list of rhetorical devices. You may recognize many of these from high school poetry classes, such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia.

This is an important point at which to remember rule number one: know your audience and put them first. Some rhetorical devices, such as hyperbole, may work well with one audience (such as a group of sports fans), but poorly with another (such as a professional and/or highly educated audience). Metaphors only work if the audience understands the metaphor; the same is true of irony.

Irony is the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humourous or emphatic effect. Although most people think they understand irony as sarcasm (such as saying to a friend who trips, “That’s graceful”), it is a much more complicated device. A speaker may use it when they profess to say one idea, but clearly means something else or say something that is obviously untrue and everyone would recognize that and understand the purpose. Irony in oral communication can be difficult to use in a way that affects everyone in the audience the same way.

Some of these rhetorical structures have been used quite famously, such parallelism in “Give me liberty or give me death” or antimetabole in “It is not…the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” In the latter quote, the words “beginning” and “end” switch order in consecutive sentences for rhetorical effect.

Using these techniques alone will not make you an effective speaker, but they are powerful tools for capturing an audience’s attention, stimulating thinking, and helping them reflect on the subject matter of a speech.


Appropriateness relates to several categories involving how persons and groups should be referred to and addressed based on inclusiveness and context. The term “politically correct” has been much maligned in recent decades, but it originally meant to describe people’s bodies and brains in terms that are acceptable to those people. Language has the power to marginalize or exclude individuals and groups. Speakers need to be inclusive in their use of language. Overall, people and groups should be respected and referred to in the way they choose to be. Using inclusive language in your speech will help ensure you aren’t alienating or diminishing any members of your audience.

Gender-Inclusive Language

The first common form of non-inclusive language is language that privileges a particular gender (usually men) or diminishes another (usually women). There are three common problem areas that speakers run into while speaking: using “he” as generic, using “man” to mean all humans, and gender-typing jobs (such as “policeman” instead of “police officer”).

Another area where speakers get into trouble with gender and language has to do with assuming a person of a particular job is a particular gender. Too often, for example, people assume that a doctor will be a man and a nurse will be a woman. As a result, they may say “she is a woman doctor” or “he is a male nurse” when mentioning someone’s occupation, perhaps not realizing that the statements “she is a doctor” and “he is a nurse” already inform the listener as to the gender of the person holding that job.

Another point to be mindful of is the respectful use of pronouns. If a person has taken the time to tell you their pronouns, use the pronouns they have told you to use. Look back at that last sentence and read it again; you’ll notice that the words “they” and “their” are used as gender inclusive pronouns. The first time you read the sentence, you probably didn’t think about it, which is good, but now that you are thinking about it, remember that “he or she,” for example, is gender exclusive, as not everybody identifies with gender-binary pronouns.

The pronouns that a person was assigned at birth are not necessarily the pronouns that apply to them in adulthood. Respect people’s pronouns and use them correctly. If you make a mistake, apologize, correct yourself, and keep working to do better in the future.

Ethnic Identity

Ethnic identity refers to a group an individual identifies with based on a common culture. Canada has a rich, diverse, and complex ethnocultural mix of people. Hundreds of Indigenous nations predate the Canadian federation and there is enormous sensitivity about the ongoing damage caused by colonialism and racism targeting Indigenous peoples. Many settler communities also have suffered the effects of racism, often with infamous historical cases, such as the Komagata Maru incident and the Head Tax. Awareness of history is critical to understanding the diverse needs of audiences.

In most situations, a public speaker doesn’t need to make any mention of the ethnicity (or gender) of people in the audience, unless ethnicity (or gender) is a specific focus of the discussion, such as the experience of Indo-Canadians working in British Columbia’s agricultural sector or the experience of women studying in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The experiences of Indo-Canadians would likely be discussed in terms of how they were unique to the experiences of agricultural workers of European origin, making the distinction necessary, as would be the contrast between the experiences of women and men in the historically male-dominated STEM fields.

Also beware that nomenclature changes over time. The preferred terms change over time and do not always have a consensus in society, even within particular groups. As an illustration, the following are four organizations based in British Columbia (emphasis added):

  • BC Assembly of First Nations
  • Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs
  • Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society
  • Kílala Lelum Urban Indigenous Health and Healing Cooperative

The cultural sensitivities and distinctions need to be navigated carefully. Speakers need to take the time to research and understand the language and need to be careful when using it, being sure not to slip into a term that was once acceptable, but now is not (or perhaps never was at all). If you make a mistake, apologize, learn from the mistake, and move forward.


Another major category of exclusive versus inclusive language that causes problems for some speakers relates to individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities or forms of mental illness. Hurtfully, some people will take a single characteristic of a person and make that the totality of what that person is. For example, some people will notice a person who benefits from the use of a wheelchair and focus only on that aspect of the person, uninterested in any other part of their personality, knowledge, or life experience. The person in the wheelchair might be a great guitarist, sculptor, parent, public speaker, or scientist, but those qualities are not seen.

Although the terms “visually impaired” and “hearing impaired” are sometimes used for “blind” and “deaf,” this is another situation where the person should be referred to as they prefer. “Hearing impaired” denotes a wide range of hearing deficit, as does “visually impaired. “Deaf” and “blind” are not generally considered offensive by these groups.

Another example is how to refer to what used to be called “autism.” Saying someone is “autistic” is not appropriate. Preferable terms are “a person with an autism diagnosis” or “a person on the autism spectrum.” Slang words for mental illness should always be avoided, such as “crazy” or “mental.” Never casually quip about “feeling Schizophrenic” or “having Alzheimer’s today.” Doing so diminishes people afflicted by those conditions.

10.3 – Developing Your Ability to Use Effective Language in Public Speaking

If you are using jargon, a technical term, a word that has multiple meanings in different contexts, or an often-misunderstood word, you can define the term early in your speech. One way to define a word is with a picture or example of what you mean and perhaps also an example of what you don’t mean (visual aids can help here). Don’t worry; this is not insulting to most audiences if the word is technical or unfamiliar to them. On the other hand, as mentioned earlier in the textbook, providing dictionary definitions of common words such as “love” or “loyalty” would be pretty boring.

Second, develop specific language. The general semantics movement suggested ways to develop more specific language that reflects the imperfection of our perceptions and the fact that reality changes. You can develop specific language by doing the following:

  • Distinguish between individuals and the group (that is, avoid stereotyping). Everybody is different and nobody in a group represents everybody else in their culture, gender, religion, or other identifiable group.
  • Specify times and places of behaviour instead of making broad statements. What was a true of a person in 1999 is not necessarily true of the person now.
  • Use names for jobs or roles (“accountants,” “administrative assistants,” “instructors”) instead of “people” or “workers.”
  • Avoid “always/never” language. “Always” and “never” usually do not reflect reality and tend to make listeners defensive.
  • Avoid confusing opinion for fact. If I say, “Forrest Gump is a tedious movie,” I am stating an opinion in the language of fact. If you preface opinions with “I believe,” or “In my opinion,” you will be truthful and gain the appearance of being fair-minded and non­-dogmatic. What should be said is “The first time I saw Forrest Gump, I didn’t realize it was a farce, but after I saw it a second time, I understood it better.” This sentence is much more specific and clarifying than “Forrest Gump is a tedious movie.”

Third, personalize your language. In a speech, it’s fine to use personal pronouns as opposed to speaking in the third person. That means “I,” “me,” “we,” “us,” and “you” are often helpful in a speech. The first person gives more immediacy to the speech. Be careful of using “you” for examples that might be embarrassing. “Let’s say you are arrested for selling banned firearms” sounds like the audience members are potential criminals.

Finally, develop your vocabulary, but do not to show it off. One of the benefits of a college education is that your vocabulary will expand greatlyand it should. A larger vocabulary will give you access to more complicated reading material and allow you to understand the world better. But knowing the meaning of a more complicated word doesn’t mean you have to use it with every audience.

Something to Think About

What are some of the clichés and slang that have become popular recently? What do they mean? Why would they not be useful in public speaking? Check out the Banned Words website by Lake Superior State University.


This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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Public Speaking for Today's Audiences Copyright © 2023 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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