12.2 Standards for Language in Public

A man and woman hold a conversation over coffee in front of large windows.

Clear language is powerful language. Clarity is the first concern of a public speaker when it comes to choosing how to phrase the ideas of his or her speech. If you are not clear, specific, precise, detailed, and sensory with your language, you won’t have to worry about being emotional or persuasive, because you won’t be understood. There are many aspects of clarity in language, listed below.

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 “creature” is very abstract; it brings up a range of mental pictures or associations: monster, animal, forests, swamps, etc. When asked to identify what an abstract term like “creature” means, twenty people will have twenty different ideas.


An iumage of an orange ladder that gets more and more specific or "concrete" as you move up each rung.
The Ladder of Abstraction starts with vague, abstract language and moves towards more concrete, specific language.

A large orange tabby cat lays on a wooden floor

In order to show how language should be more specific, the “ladder of abstraction” (Hayakawa, 1939) was developed. The ladder of abstraction helps us see how our language can range from abstract (general and sometimes vague) to very precise and specific (such as an actual thing that everyone in your audience will know or be able to identify). Instead of  saying, “he was a large man,” it might provide more clarity if you were specific with your language by saying, “He’s 6 foot, four inches tall and weighs about three hundred and fifty pounds.”   Or to reference our image above, if you were to tell your audience you have a living creature in your home, it would sound quite mysterious, but it would create more clarity and understanding if they knew you were referencing your three year old, obese, orange tabby who is constantly sleeping or eating. The more specific we can be with our language, the better we can create a mental image for the audience. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

Related to the issue of specific vs. 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 do mean the same thing, 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 like similes and metaphors; figurative language uses comparisons with objects, animals, activities, roles, or historical or literary figures. Literal says, “The truck is fast.” Figurative says “The truck is as fast as…“ or “The truck runs like…” or “He drives that truck like Kyle Busch at Daytona.” Similes use some form of “like” or “as” in the comparisons. Metaphors are direct comparisons, such as “He is Kyle Busch at Daytona when he gets behind the wheel of that truck.” Here are some more examples of metaphors:

Love is a battlefield.

Upon hearing the charges, the accused clammed up and refused to speak without a lawyer.

Every year a new crop of activists is born.

For rhetorical purposes, metaphors are considered stronger, but both can help you achieve clearer language, if chosen wisely. To think about how metaphor is stronger than simile, think of the difference “Love is a battlefield” and “Love is like a battlefield.” Speakers are encouraged to pick and not overuse them. Also, avoid mixed metaphors, as in this example: “That’s awfully thin gruel for the right wing to hang their hats on.” Or “He found himself up a river and had to change horses.” The mixed metaphor here is the use of “up a river” and “change horses” together; you would either need to use an all river-based metaphor (dealing with boats, water, tides, etc.) or a metaphor dealing specifically with horses. The example above about a “new crop” “being born,” is actually a mixed metaphor, since crops aren’t born, but planted and harvested. Additionally, in choosing metaphors and similes, speakers want to avoid clichés, discussed next.

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! It is not hard to think of clichés: “Scared out of my . . .” or “When life gives you lemons. . .” or “All is fair in. . .” or, when describing a reckless driver, “She drives like a . . . “ If you filled in the blanks with “wits,” “make lemonade,” “love and war,” “or “maniac,” 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. As the United States becomes more diverse, being aware of your audience members whose first language is not English is a valuable tool for a speaker.

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. Although clichés do have a comfort level to them, comfort puts people to sleep. Find fresh ways, or just use basic, literal language. “The bear was big” is imprecise in terms of giving your audience an idea of how frightful an experience faced by a bear would be. “The bear was as big as a house” is a cliché and an exaggeration, therefore imprecise. A better alternative might be, “The bear was two feet taller than I am when he stood on his back legs.” The opposite of clichés is clear, vivid, and fresh language.

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 color. 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 or dorm room to leave a sensory impression? How would you describe your favorite meal to leave a sensory impression? or a thunderstorm?

Poetry uses much imagery, so to end this section on fresh, clear language, here is a verse from “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth. Notice the metaphors (“daffodils dancing,” “host,” which brings to mind great heavenly numbers), simile (“as the stars”) and the imagery (“golden” rather than “yellow,” and other appeals to feeling and sight):

A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way.

A picture of vibrant yellow flowers with a blue sky background


Language achieves effectiveness by communicating the right message to the audience. Clarity contributes to effectiveness, but there are some other aspects of effectiveness. To that end, language should be a means of inclusion and identification, rather than exclusion. Let’s establish this truth: Language is for communication; communication is symbolic, and language is the main (but not only) symbol system we use for communication. If language is for communication, then its goal should be to bring people together and to create understanding.

Unfortunately, we habitually use language for exclusion rather than inclusion. We can push people away with our word choices rather than bringing them together. Stereotypes serve as examples of what we’re talking about here. What follows are some examples of language that can exclude members of your audience from understanding what you are saying.


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. If audience members do not understand your references, jargon, or vocabulary, it is unlikely that they will sit there and say, “This person is so smart! I wish I could be smart like this speaker.” The audience member is more likely to be thinking, “Why can’t this speaker use words we understand and get off the high horse?” (which I admit, is a cliché!)

What this means for you is that you need to be careful about assumptions of your audience’s knowledge and their ability to interpret jargon. For example, if you are trying to register for a class at the authors’ college and your adviser asks for the CRN, most other people would have no idea what you are talking about (course reference number). Acronyms, such NPO, are common in jargon. Those trained in the medical field know it is based on the Latin for “nothing by mouth.” The military has many acronyms, such as MOS (military occupational specialty, or career field in civilian talk). If you are speaking to an audience who does not know the jargon of your field, using it will only make them annoyed by the lack of clarity.

Sometimes we are not even aware of our jargon and its inadvertent effects. A student once complained to one of the authors about her reaction when she heard that she had been “purged.” The word sounds much worse than the meaning it had in that context: that her name was taken off the official roll due nonpayment before the beginning of the semester.


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. For example, “That was a slam dunk” is used to describe something easy, not just in basketball.

Complicated Vocabulary

If a speaker used the word “recalcitrant,” some audience members would know the meaning or figure it out (“Calci-”is like calcium, calcium is hard, etc.), 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

It is difficult to think of many examples, other than artistic or comedy venues, where 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 the phrase “I guess” in a speech. Credible speakers should know what they are talking about.

Rhetorical Techniques

There are several traditional techniques that have been used to engage audiences and make ideas more attention-getting and memorable. These are called rhetorical techniques. Although “rhetorical” is associated with persuasive speech, these techniques are also effective with other types of speeches. We will not mention all of them here, but some important ones are listed below. Several of them are based on a form of repetition. You can refer to an Internet source for a full list of the dozens of rhetorical devices.

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in a sentence or passage. As such, it is a kind of rhyme. Minister Tony Campolo said, “When Jesus told his disciples to pray for the kingdom, this was no pie in the sky by and by when you die kind of prayer.”

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds in a sentence or passage. In his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Dr. Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Not only does this sentence use alliteration, it also uses the next rhetorical technique on our list, antithesis.

Antithesis is the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced or parallel words, phrases, or grammatical structures. Usually antithesis goes: Not this, but this. John F. Kennedy’s statement from his 1961 inaugural address is one of the most quoted examples of antithesis: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In that speech he gave another example, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Parallelism is the repetition of sentence structures. It can be useful for stating your main ideas. Which one of these sounds better?

“Give me liberty or I’d rather die.”
“Give me liberty or give me death.”

The second one uses parallelism. Quoting again from JFK’s inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The repetition of the three-word phrases in this sentence (including the word “any” in each) is an example of parallelism.

Anaphora is a succession of sentences beginning with the same word or group of words. In his inaugural address, JFK began several succeeding paragraphs with “To those”: “To those old allies,” “To those new states,” “To those people,” etc.

Hyperbole is intentional exaggeration for effect. Sometimes it is for serious purposes, other times for humor. Commonly we use hyperbolic language in our everyday speech to emphasize our emotions, such as when we say “I’m having the worst day ever” or “I would kill for a cup of coffee right now.” Neither of those statements is (hopefully) true, but it stresses to others the way you are feeling. Ronald Reagan, who was often disparaged for being the oldest president, would joke about his age. In one case he said, “The chamber is celebrating an important milestone this week: your 70th anniversary. I remember the day you started.”

Irony is the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous 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 topic. A speaker may use it when they profess to say one thing 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.

Using these techniques alone will not make you an effective speaker. Dr. King and President Kennedy combined them with strong metaphors and images as well; for example, Dr. King described the promises of the founding fathers as a “blank check” returned with the note “insufficient funds” as far as the black Americans of his time were concerned. That was a very concrete, human, and familiar metaphor to his listeners and still speaks to us today.

Martin Luther King, Jr. stands with a group of men holding signs in the 1963 March on Washington.


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 overused to describe the growing sensitivity to how the power of language can marginalize or exclude individuals and groups. While there are silly extremes such as the term “vertically challenged” for “short,” these humorous examples overlook the need to be inclusive about 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 one of the sexes over the other. 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. Consider the statement, “Every morning when an officer of the law puts on his badge, he risks his life to serve and protect his fellow citizens.” Obviously, both male and female police officers risk their lives when they put on their badges.

A zoomed in picture of an OSU police officer's badge and police patch

A better way to word the sentence would be, “Every morning when officers of the law put on their badges, they risk their lives to serve and protect their fellow citizens.” Notice that in the better sentence, we made the subject plural (“officers”) and used neutral pronouns (“they” and “their”) to avoid the generic “he.” Likewise, speakers of English have traditionally used terms like “man,” and “mankind” when referring to both females and males. Instead of using the word “man,” refer to the “human race.”

The last common area where speakers get into trouble with gender and language has to do with job titles. It is not unusual for people to assume, for example, that doctors are male and nurses are female. 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 sex of the
person holding that job.

Ethnic Identity

Ethnic identity refers to a group an individual identifies with based on a common culture. For example, within the United States we have numerous ethnic groups, including Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Japanese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Cuban Americans, and Mexican Americans. As with the earlier example of “male nurse,” avoid statements such as “The committee is made up of four women and a Vietnamese man.” All that should be said is, “The committee is made up of five people.”

If for some reason gender and ethnicity have to be mentioned—and usually it does not—the gender and ethnicity of each member should be mentioned equally. “The committee is made up of three European-American women, one Latina, and one Vietnamese male.” In recent years, there has been a trend toward steering inclusive language away from broad terms like “Asians” and “Hispanics” because these terms are not considered precise labels for the groups they actually represent. If you want to be safe, the best thing you can do is ask a couple of people who belong to an ethnic group how they prefer to be referred to in that context.


The last 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. Sometimes it happens that we take a characteristic of someone and make that the totality or all of what that person is. For example, some people are still uncomfortable around persons who use wheelchairs and don’t know how to react. They may totalize and think that the wheelchair defines and therefore limits the user. The person in the wheelchair might be a great guitarist, sculptor, parent, public speaker, or scientist, but those qualities are not seen, only the wheelchair.

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 he or she prefers. “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 similar to the word “retarded” in that neither is appropriate. Preferable terms are “a person with an autism diagnosis” or “a person on the autism spectrum.” In place of “retarded,” “a person with intellectual disabilities” should be used. Likewise, slang words for mental illness should always be avoided, such as “crazy” or “mental.”

Other Types of Appropriateness

Language in a speech should be appropriate to the speaker and the speaker’s background and personality, to the context, to the audience, and to the topic. 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. As another example, if you are speaking about the Great Depression to an audience of young adults or recent immigrants, you can’t assume they will know the meaning of terms like “New Deal” and “WPA,” which would be familiar to an audience of senior citizens. Audience analysis is a key factor in choosing the language to use in a speech.



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