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I've sometimes come across the expression 'speak for', not a phrasal as such, but an expression to say 'is a clear sign of' as in

The regular attendance at the course speaks for its great success.

It is clear that the usual construction is with a noun (speak for + n). The question a student put to me a few days ago was whether the expression could be used with a nominal phrase headed by a 'wh' word, like:

The constant clashes between locals and immigrants speak for how difficult it is to incorporate foreigners into our society.

What does everybody think?

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  • It's perfectly fine. It simply means that the local clashes between locals and immigrants explain how difficult it is to incorporate foreigners into our society. The clause beginning with "how" is a subordinate interrogative clause. the meaning is "The constant clashes between locals and immigrants explain the answer to the question 'How difficult is it to incorporate foreigners into our society?'"
    – BillJ
    Nov 20 '16 at 19:51
  • I'm afraid most of the answers - if not all - miss the point completely. The 'how'-clause is by no means an indirect question in my example (as somebody suggested) and 'speak to' is totally wrong ... I'm sorry about that. My doubt rermains unclarified Nov 23 '16 at 5:28
  • I'm not clear about why you feel the how- clause is by no means an interrogative. Such clauses can function as complement to a preposition (cf. "It all depends on how much time we have"). I do agree with you that "speak" doesn't select "to" for this particular meaning, at least not in BrE, though another contributor seems to think it does.
    – BillJ
    Nov 23 '16 at 9:01
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In my experience, it is speak to, not speak for, and yes, it can be used with an interrogative content clause:

The constant clashes between locals and immigrants speak to how difficult it is to incorporate foreigners into our society.

Your examples with speak for sound like an error to me, but if there's a dialect where either example is accepted, then I would expect both examples to be accepted (since I'd expect that that dialect simply uses speak for in all cases where I use this sense of speak to). I do find a (very) few examples online, such as "all of this just speaks for how difficult it is for plastic to bio-degrade" and "I feel that that speaks for how difficult it is to be at the top level in ski racing".

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  • Agreed—I’ve never heard ‘speak for’ in this sense either, only ‘speak to’. Nov 20 '16 at 11:31
  • I wouldn't go along with what you say. I think your example is ungrammatical since "speak" does licence such a PP with an interrogative content clause as complement. The prep "for" is fine in the OP's example where the meaning is, "The constant clashes between locals and immigrants explain the answer to the question 'How difficult is it to incorporate foreigners into our society?'"
    – BillJ
    Nov 20 '16 at 20:18
  • @BillJ: I'll ignore your second sentence, since it's obviously wrong and you've provided no evidence for it; but I'm interested in your third sentence. If your explanation is correct, then you would also be happy with "The constant clashes and between locals and immigrants speak for how easy it is to incorporate foreigners into our society", because "not at all" is still a valid answer to the question "how easy is it to incorporate foreigners into our society?". Are you? That's interesting, if so, since speak to does not allow that.
    – ruakh
    Nov 20 '16 at 20:24
  • It's not wrong since complements must be licensed by the head. For this meaning, "speak" selects "for", not "to", though "of" would also be possible. Replacing "difficult" with "easy" makes little sense of course, but it would not change anything I said.
    – BillJ
    Nov 21 '16 at 11:16
  • @BillJ: I don't deny that complements must be licensed by the head -- that is in fact a premise of this answer -- but it's obviously wrong to claim that speak does not select to for this meaning. (Did you click the link in the answer? Or do even a moment's research?) And if you think that replacing difficult with easy "makes little sense", then your explanation of the meaning is apparently wrong (or at least incomplete).
    – ruakh
    Nov 21 '16 at 15:33
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Adding to @ruakh's great answer, a complement of a preposition (also known as object of a preposition) is, most of the time, a noun or noun phrase. Therefore, as long as the wh-clause is a noun phrase, it can be a complement of a preposition.

Wh-words such as what, why, which, where, when and how are all used in forming an interrogative sentence or interrogative content clause which can be used as a subject, object and subject complement as in:

What's missing here is authenticity. (Subject)

I don't know how you did it. (Object)

That's how it is. (Subject complement)

"How difficult is it to incorporate foreigners into our society?" is a question and if you change the word order from is it to it is, it becomes an interrogative content clause which can be a complement of a preposition.

A side note: It sounds more idiomatic if you insert well between speak and for as in speak well for.

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