Sunday, 25 January 2009

On holding a speech

An English teacher from Germany writes to ask: 'Do you hold a speech or give a speech'. He adds: 'I could have sworn it was give, but people claim to have seen hold a speech in newspapers'.

Indeed you will - and on the internet too, as you'll quickly discover if you type hold a/the speech into a search engine. What's interesting about these cases is that an adverbial of place or time seems to be obligatory. It's usually a place adverbial:

Obama will hold acceptance speech at football stadium with more seats.
Students hold free speech rally at Danish consulate.
Canadians Hold Free Speech Rally in Toronto.
Merkel opposed the Obama campaign's initial plan to hold the speech at the Brandenburg Gate.
the decision to hold the speech at Invesco was made two months ago.

Sometimes it's a time adverbial:

Sayyed Nasrallah to Hold Speech on Resistance Day.

And sometimes it's both:

Professor David Ray Griffin will hold a speech on 8 September 2006 in the Tropeninstituut in Amsterdam.

By contrast, give a speech is the norm when the focus is non-specific or where the adverbial gives further information about the topic.

Mike gave an excellent speech.
She gave a speech on the environment.

And of course, we can add adverbials of place or time to this:

Mike gave an excellent speech on the environment on Friday last at the Planetarium.

So the generalization seems to be something like this: give a speech is the more general usage; but hold a speech can be used where the focus is explicitly on the event rather than on the subject-matter. Without this focus, I find the usage dubious:

Mike held an excellent speech.

I think I could only use this if I meant 'the arrangements Mike made for the speech were excellent' - analogous to 'Mike held a meeting to talk about the environment' , 'I held a party and nobody came' (The Bee Gees), and so on. I'd be interested to know if others share this feeling.


baralbion said...

‘Hold a speech’ is new to me, and it does seem a little odd. It seems to conflate giving a speech and holding an event, two actions which do not inevitably belong together. (A speech clearly needs an audience, but it would be a little pretentious to claim that a speech delivered at, say, a family dinner required the holding of an event.) So it seems to me that in all but two (possibly three) of your examples ‘give a speech’ could equally well be used. ‘Hold’ seems to add nothing, given that the context and the adverbial itself explain that the speech will be something of an occasion.

The two exceptions are ‘Students hold free speech rally at Danish consulate’ and ‘Canadians Hold Free Speech Rally in Toronto’ where it seems to me that it is the rally that is being held, rather than the speech.

The possible third exception is ‘Merkel opposed the Obama campaign's initial plan to hold the speech at the Brandenburg Gate’, where Merkel is opposing not Obama’s giving the speech, but his campaign’s plan to hold the event in a particular place.

Rick S said...

I thought it sounded odd at first, but came to the same conclusions. Then I wondered why we hold a meeting and thought it was an idiomatic expression. But it isn't: We also hold memorial services and other kinds of ceremonial events.

So there must be a sense of hold with this meaning of planning, scheduling, providing accomodations for, and executing an event. (At least for me, you can't be said to hold the event unless it actually takes place.)

Still, I'm not sure this meaning of hold is generalized to all formal events yet. "Hold a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony" still sounds odd to me. Maybe this example is evidence of a developing generalization.

Kate said...

That's certainly my intuition. Of the place adverbial examples that you give, it seems relevant to me that two of them are referring to a rally rather than an individual speech. So, as you point out, the focus is on the event.

In the final two examples the subject doing the 'holding' is not necessarily the person 'giving' the speech, but rather organising the event: Obama's campaign (team), and the organisers of the event at Invesco respectively.

I agree that the other examples are dubious unless you take the focus to be on the event.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Honestly, I couldn't "hold" a speech no matter what. "He held a speech" would mean to me that he was holding the physical speech in his hand. The examples all sound weird to me.

Larry said...

Muchos Gracias!

nicky said...

that's exactly what i though when i first read the example of the "Free Speech Rally". A speech can be "held" in so much as it is considered an event or gathering, not as a linguistic act.

sorry for the commenting spree, just discovered the blog, excellent stuff!

Nigel Greenwood said...

Presumably the teacher from Germany raised the question in the first place because he had learnt that the German for "give a speech" is eine Rede halten (ie "hold a speech"). I'm assuming from the excerpt you quote that he is a native speaker of English -- not that that makes any difference.

Hugo said...

It may be just one of many examples of the broad usage of a word which changes and often goes unnoticed. It therefore performs a wide range of functions and is acceptable in the context of organising an event, 'holding an event', or used where others may prefer to use 'giving'. Maybe to 'hold a speech' is simply an example of a shift in the function of this word, though I agree that elsewhere one of the two does seem out of place as Rick S says. Is this simply an example of where either preference is acceptable?

KateGladstone said...

To me, "hold a speech" sounds all wrong -- but "hold speech" sounds all right (though it would refer to one person speaking with another, not to one person addressing a group).

Susanna said...

Interesting! In Swedish (as well as in German, apparently), the verb is "hålla" ('hold') a speech. The construction "ge ett tal" (give a speech) is not used. Question is, then, if a change of verb is underway in English, are the English influenced by other European languages in this respect?

DC said...

It's difficult to tell, from Google-type data, whether the writers are L1 or L2. But, as a principle, yes, there's every reason to expect that the usage of L2 speakers will influence the language as a whole, over time, given that they are in the vast majority. This might well be an example of a usage being reinforced by ELF users.

Pavel said...

Having thought it over, I've also come to a conclusion that "to hold a speech" means not only to pronouce it, but also all the pre-arrangements, as well as the speaker's manner and the attitude of the audience. In my opinion it's applicable when dealing with politics and other suchlike issues.

While "to give" is a sort of generalization, like a side-statement, which has little semantic weight. No need to expand on the core idea of the "speech given". Could this be the case?

And what if one "delivers a speech"? Is it some sort of bookish expression or is it just a narrower case of synonym to "hold a speech". We can hold both "parties" and "speeches", while we can't "deliver a party", can we?

DC said...

Yes, I think give is a 'lighter' verb, in this context.

Deliver is interesting. It's a development of an early reflexive use, where one 'delivered' oneself of' whatever was in one's mind. It then accreted a wide range of collocations, such as 'deliver an answer, judgment, passage, opinion' - usually with a particular emphasis on the mode of delivery. Delivering a speech falls into that pattern.

Larry said...

Nigel - the question was raised by a colleague of mine who is a native German speaker. The question however had nothing to do with the German equivalent phrase, rather my strong assertions that to hold a speech was wrong, and her assertion that she had seen it in a newspaper. (Not the gruniad)

Robert W. Franson said...

The difference I hear seems to be one of motion:
To give a speech, to deliver a speech, to give a party, is an issuing forth. A gift is given from one to another or to many.
To hold a rally, to hold the fort, is to do something in place, an event.

Trying this on an action that could be expressed subtly either way, we might have:
She gave her lips to be kissed: this is a gift, a hopeful offering.
She held up her lips to be kissed: this is expectant, with the sense of going halfway to the meeting.

diana said...

I have not heard of 'holding' a speech, but it has caused me to consider whether it would be harder to 'hold' a speech than to 'hold'. your tongue

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion :-). In Danish we also say to 'hold a speech' (holde en tale) as in other germanic languages like German and Swedish. That can perhaps explain why the expression is used in English too, as English is also a Germanic language.

This leads to another question, namely if 'to hold a speech' is just an expression that has always existed in the English language, and whose use is just growing now due to influence from other languages? One example of this particular phenomenon is for instance to be found in France, where they have begun to use the word "challenge" more and more instead of "défi", both words having always been a part of the French vocabulary.

Furthermore, could it perhaps be that there's a difference between American-English and British-English here?