Earlier today, a student of mine was telling me a story about how his colleague, upon seeing him wearing an over-the-top jacket, was so surprised that she couldn't say anything.

Question: Which expression would you have said?

"My colleague was tongue-tied when she saw me wearing such an extravagant jacket"
"My colleague was speechless when she saw me wearing such an extravagant jacket"

I'd always thought that the two were synonyms, but Merriam Webster defines tongue-tied as "unable to speak because you are nervous or shy" and speechless as "unable to speak because of anger, surprise, etc.", so I'd probably be more inclined to use speechless in this situation.

However, Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary has a broader definition of tongue-tied ("unable to speak, as from shyness, embarrassment, or surprise"), which seems to suggest that speechless and tongue-tied are synonyms.

Your thoughts? How would you use speechless and tongue-tied?

  • 5
    I generally see "tongue-tied" used when the speaker is stammering or babbling, whereas "speechless" seems to be used when the speaker can't say anything at all.
    – Roger
    Oct 28, 2014 at 21:52

3 Answers 3


The two sentences have a slightly different denotation, and a significantly different connotation:

My colleague was tongue-tied when she saw me wearing such an extravagant jacket.

This indicates to me that your colleague wanted to say something, but couldn't. She was probably stammering over what she wanted to say, or couldn't get it out because she was nervous.

Because of the connection between tongue-tied and shyness or embarrassment, the phrase tongue-tied can also impart a romantic connotation. For example, "The boy saw the pretty girl, but couldn't compliment her because he was tongue tied."

My colleague was SPEECHLESS when she saw me wearing such an extravagant jacket.

This indicates to me that your colleague couldn't find the words to express what she wanted to say. Either her surprise over seeing you in the jacket (or her anger/jealousy/etc. in seeing you in such and extravagent jacket) simply "took" the words right out of her.

Often times, "speechless" has a negative connotation, because of its connection to anger, jealousy, etc. For example, "My mom was speechless when she heard me cuss out my grandmother." In such a sentence, "tongue-tied" wouldn't be appropriate.


Regardless of the definition (denotation), tongue-tied to me always has a connotation of social awkwardness: you get tongue-tied because of embarrassment, even if the emotion you're trying to express is one of surprise. Speechlessness, on the other hand, has no such connotation: if you're so surprised you're speechless, there's no component of embarrassment.

Another way to think about it is that tongue-tied refers to a self-imposed unwillingness to talk, albeit often a subconscious one: you're so worried about what others will think that you keep revising what you want to say, to the point that nothing comes out. If you're speechless, on the other hand, you don't care one whit for what others think, but the situation is so astounding that you just can't find the words to express what you feel.

Needless to say, I think speechless is the better choice for your extravagant jacket example.


Speechless almost always implies anger, or at least frustration, having been taken by surprise at what one has seen or heard. It could also perhaps mean 'rhetorically defeated for words'.

Tongue-tied suggests a momentary verbal or mental impediment to speech, which could be caused by a variety of factors such as a stammer, ineffectiveness in public, embarrassment social awkwardness etc. It does not usually imply anger.

  • 2
    You can be "lost for words" when you are pleasantly or unexpectedly surprised; I think speechless is quite similar. It's more like shock rather than anger, I feel.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 28, 2014 at 22:45
  • 2
    "When I saw the canyon for the first time, I was awestruck and speechless before its magnificence" or something similar works for me. No anger, no frustration.
    – Amadan
    Oct 29, 2014 at 1:02
  • @Mari-LouA I agree totally with 'lost for words', and it is how I would expect someone might describe their experience of 'seeing the canyon for the first time' per Amadan. But I still think 'speechless' usually implies anger or annoyance. It may be a British v American thing.
    – WS2
    Oct 29, 2014 at 7:52
  • @Mari-LouA The OED doesn't help much. Among a plethora of different nuances for speechless it doesn't provide any example of its use more recent than 1915.
    – WS2
    Oct 29, 2014 at 7:56
  • I'm not sure if it is a BrEng vs. AmEng thing. I've never been aware there was any difference in meaning or usage, I would still consider to be under shock and too shocked for words as a synonym for speechless. The rare times I have been struck dumb were nearly always a reaction to someone's outrageous (unpleasantly shocked) or extremely stupid statements/claims (disbelief, incredulity).
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 29, 2014 at 8:05

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