My brain completely misinterprets the last 2 of these words every time I read them:

  • When I hear X is "unspoken", I interpret it to mean nobody speaks about X.

  • When I hear X is "misspoken", I interpret it to mean that people say X by mistake.

  • When I hear X is "outspoken", I interpret it as meaning that X is spoken of (or X does speaks) but the speech tends to be drowned out by others' voices.

  • When I hear X is "softspoken", I interpret it as meaning that people tend to speak "softly" of X.

Yet somehow, it seems the first two are correct, but the last two are wrong.
Heck, the first two apply to things, whereas the last two seem to apply to people.
In the first two cases, X is the subject of the sentence, but in the last two, it is the object.

  • Shouldn't the consistent usage and the "-en" conjugation mean X is the subject?

  • From a language standpoint, what exactly is different about these that makes their meanings so seemingly ambiguous grammatically?

  • 5
    What does a dictionary say?
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 17, 2016 at 22:10
  • 1
    @HotLicks: It says "outspoken" means frank in stating one's opinions, and "softspoken" means speaking or said with a gentle, quiet voice. Your point?
    – user541686
    Dec 17, 2016 at 22:11
  • 2
    @HotLicks: I have, and I was never asking for the definitions. Did you actually read the question?
    – user541686
    Dec 17, 2016 at 22:14
  • 4
    @HotLicks: Because by that logic "unspoken" would mean "does not speak" rather than "is not spoken of", and "misspoken" would mean "utters incorrectly" rather than "is uttered incorrectly". "Uneaten" would mean "does not eat" rather than "is not eaten", etc... again, did you read the question? I literally gave you 2 concrete examples to illustrate and contrast the difference.
    – user541686
    Dec 17, 2016 at 22:18
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    @Jim: Well that's what I'm trying to do, but that's not answering my question. I'm asking for an explanation of some sort. Is it a different verb tense or grammar rule I might not know about? Has it always followed normal grammar rules, or was it used incorrectly and fall in use recently? Is it really as uncommon as it seems, or are there lots of other examples? There are so many more enlightening answers possible here other than "go read the dictionary"... I'm baffled why you guys keep trying to give me the definition and shut down the question when that's not something I even asked for.
    – user541686
    Dec 17, 2016 at 22:25

5 Answers 5


What's involved here is a tension between transitive and intransitive uses of the past participle spoken.

Ordinarily a past participle employed as an adjective has a passive sense: the noun modified is the object of the verb, subject of the passive construction:

John did not speak Mary's name, but everyone knew who he was talking about.
Mary's name was not spoken.
Mary's name was unspoken.

Only the past participles of transitive verbs can be employed this way, because only transitive verbs have objects and only transitive verbs can be passivized.

Consequently, the past participles of intransitive verbs are rarely used as adjectives; but there's a handful which are, and in these cases the participle has an active and usually perfective sense.

  • A widely travelled woman is not a woman who "has been travelled" widely, because travel is used transitively only of places, not of persons; she is a woman who has travelled widely.

  • A risen dough is not a dough which "has been risen", because rise is intransitive (the transitive version is raise); it is a dough which ****has risen***.

Speak has both transitive and intransitive uses: one may speak a speech or a word AND one may simply "speak", loudly or softly or out or of a topic. And the compounds you adduce employ the participle in different senses:

  • Unspoken is a passive use—the entity modified is not spoken.
  • There's a verb misspeak which is almost always used intransitively—"When I said that I misspoke"—so in theory the participle would be employed as an active; but I've never actually seen misspoken employed as an adjectival in any sense, and I would be considerably more surprised to find it used actively than passively.
  • Outspoken derives from speak out; this is usually intransitive, and in fact the adjective means "given to speaking out", often with the implication that what is said is injudicious or ill-considered.
  • Soft-spoken derives from speak soft(ly), intransitive, and means "given to speaking softly" rather than loudly or harshly.
  • Excellent analysis & explanation.
    – TrevorD
    Dec 23, 2016 at 20:14
  • +1 FINALLY! After so much pain and tears battling to keep my question open, it's great to see this ray of light shining through. :) Thanks so much, this is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping for. I learned a lot from your answer, and the part where you point out that "outspoken" is derived from "speak out" (whereas "misspeak" isn't from "speak mis") seems to nail a crucial distinction I didn't notice (even though it seems so obvious in hindsight). I learned what a transitive verb is and I even learned a new word from your answer ("adduce")! Wish I could +100 this.
    – user541686
    Dec 23, 2016 at 21:16
  • @Mehrdad I'm happy to have been of service. And don't let the difficulty you had with this question turn you against ELU--it is often very hard for native speakers to understand exactly what a learner's problem is, because the problems never arise for us :) Dec 23, 2016 at 22:17
  • @StoneyB: It's funny because at this point nobody still considers me an English learner (at least, no more than anyone who only speaks English)... almost all of my education has been in native English schools, so by pretty much everyone's standards I'm considered a native speaker. It's only at odd times like this when I run into problems that truly native speakers never seem to, and then am reminded that English is my second language!
    – user541686
    Dec 23, 2016 at 22:36
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    @Mehrdad I'm a 69-year-old native speaker, a professional writer, with a doctorate in LitCrit, and I'm still learning. This answer is something I learned this afternoon--because you asked and made me think about it. Thanks! Dec 23, 2016 at 22:40

All four describe the manner in which something is spoken:

  • unspoken criticism
  • misspoken criticism
  • outspoken criticism
  • softspoken criticism

The latter pair can further be used to describe individuals who habitually speak in the stipulated manner, as you've noticed: similarly, we have plainspoken, free-spoken, well-spoken, and loud-spoken, among others.

Misspoken and unspoken in contrast, are the past participles of the verbs misspeak and unspeak, respectively, and are not extensible, as with forespoken and respoken, among others. All of these verbs save the first are archaic/literary/obsolete today, however.

  • This is quite interesting! To make sure I am understanding it correctly: are you saying that the pattern/rule is the following? When we say "X is Y-spoken", Y refers to X as the object if and only if 'Y-spoken' is itself a standalone verb; otherwise, Y refers to X as the subject.
    – user541686
    Dec 22, 2016 at 11:00

I have been trying to work out the best way to answer this and although there are exceptions, these are the general patterns for the words you indicate that you have problems with.

out— words

  • An outspoken person maybe speaks out about something they believe in

  • An outreach worker maybe someone who reaches out to help.

  • A movie outtake is a scene which a director takes out of the movie.

soft— words

These are descriptive words which are opposite to hard- words and...

  • A soft-spoken person will have speech which is soft in comparison to a hard-spoken person.

  • A soft-coated dog will have fur which is soft compared to a hard-coated dog

  • A soft-hearted person will have a temperament which is soft compared to a hardhearted person

  • A soft-centred sweet will have a centre which is soft compared to a hard-centred.

The only exception I can think of at this time is soft-boiled which refers to an egg which is boiled but the yolk is soft and runny compared to a hard-boiled egg which isn't soft and runny at all.

  • I really appreciate the attempt (+1 for that), but unfortunately this is focusing on the wrong thing. The confusing part isn't the first half of the word; it's the second half. And the focus is on the grammar and the verb tense, not the vocabulary per se. The question is why "X is [verb]en" seems to change meaning from "X is [verb]ed by some Y" to "X [verb]s some Y". What exactly is it that is converting X from the object into the subject of the sentence? Grammatically it seems the conjugation implies it should always be the object, so that's the confusing part.
    – user541686
    Dec 18, 2016 at 0:31
  • (I also edited the question just now to clarify.)
    – user541686
    Dec 18, 2016 at 0:35

unspoken is a word from the late 14th century, likely derived from Dutch/German roots, while outspoken is of Scottish origin, from around 1800. Entirely different times and cultures produced the two words.

  • +1 but soft- seems to be Germanic as well? (there's no entry for soft-spoken so I'm not sure)
    – user541686
    Dec 18, 2016 at 2:02
  • @Mehrdad - I didn't research "soft-spoken". You're welcome to do so, however.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 18, 2016 at 2:06
  • +1 Just because they share a suffix doesn't mean that they have similar constructions today, or that they did when the words were coined.
    – John Feltz
    Dec 22, 2016 at 13:09

These words describe how something is spoken, generally.

un - not in public, but in private.

miss - incorrectly.

out - without much thought.

soft - at a low volume.

They are all ways of speaking: privately, poorly, frequently, and gently.

I learned two things researching this: soft-spoken is always hyphenated, and if you don't know the answer, leave a comment.

  • Thanks for the answer! +1 for the hyphen (though Wiktionary accepts the non-hyphenated version too). But outspoken and soft-spoken refer to people and not things, right? And outspoken means "speaking frankly" rather than "speaking without much thought", right...? (You can speak frankly with a lot of thought, or just lie without any thought...)
    – user541686
    Dec 17, 2016 at 23:08
  • 1
    @Mehrdad I would agree with you. The answer here regarding out- words is not quite correct as an outspoken person can be speaking frankly with a lot of thought Dec 17, 2016 at 23:30
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    Not sure where the “without much thought” thing comes from. That’s not how I view that prefix at all.
    – Jim
    Dec 17, 2016 at 23:44
  • I would generally regard "out" to imply "loudly".
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 23, 2016 at 20:45
  • I would modify my entry under out- to be without much or any internal debate or regret. Those are the thoughts I had in mind, but I see how without thought means thoughtless. I think outspoken implies no filters, they say what's on their mind, even if it isn't a popular idea, but have (perhaps) thought very carefully about it. I don't think it ever means "loudly" even if those two have high correlation.
    – Grammer
    Jan 27, 2017 at 7:46

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