What are the differences between these two phrasal verbs and what are the best situations to use each?
You are more likely to encounter speak with in American English, which employs the verb + with construction (speak with, meet with) very much more than British English does.
I remember hearing a clip of Laura Bush speaking on the radio (I think to the people of Afghanistan) and saying how pleased she was to be "speaking with you" and to British English ears it sounded very odd. On the radio, how are you doing anything other than speaking to your audience?
I have seen "Speak to" being used when there is a monologue kind of a situation, A speaks and B listens. Refer Shinto's answer. This has reference to instructing, reprimanding and situations like this.
"Speak with" is a more neutral kind of a term implying a bidirectional communication.
This answer has two portions, one on to speak with/to, which is what the question asked, and one on to meet with, which came up in comments to another answer. You will note in the reference citation that speak is from the OED2 in 1989, whereas talk is from the OED3 in 2001. Only the latter is called out as now being chiefly North American in contemporary usage, and even there many illustrations from British literature of an era slightly earlier than our own are given.
to speak with / to ━━
The OED makes does not call out either of the two phrasal verbs “to speak with ━━” or “to speak to ━━” as being more commonly seen in Britain vs elsewhere.
Here is the first sense for “to speak with ━━ ”:
- To converse with, talk to; to consult or confer with.
In Old English and early Middle English similarly with mid.
- 971 Blickl. Hom. 241 He þæt is se þe wið me spræc.
- c1000 Ælfric Exodus xxxii. 23 Þa þu‥ wið god spæce.
- c1200 Trin. Coll. Hom. 85 Alse wise hire lerden, þanne hie wið hire speken.
- a1250 Owl & Nightingale 1553 Ne mot no mon wiþ hire speke.
- c1330 (1300) Sir Tristrem (1886) l. 811 Wiþ morgan speke wil y And spede.
- c1426 J. Audelay Poems (1931) 17 Ȝe spekyn with Hym in spyrit.
- 1470–85 Malory Morte d'Arthur ɪ. x. 48 They spak with the knyghtes & welcomed hem.
- 1530 J. Palsgrave Lesclarcissement 727/2 He shalbe spoken with towchyng your cause.
- 1622 in W. Foster Eng. Factories India 1622–3 (1908) 10 They both retired themselves to there privacy, soe that wee could not then speake with them.
- 1675 City Mercury 18–25 Nov. 2/1 He [a Physician] is any time to be spoke with from eight in the Morning to four in the Afternoon.
- 1764 S. Foote Patron ɪɪɪ. 67 Not to be spoke with! Don't tell me, Sir; he must, he shall.
- 1816 Scott Old Mortality vii, in Tales of my Landlord 1st Ser. IV. 140 Your uncle‥has been spoken with, and declines visiting you.
- 1847 Tennyson Princess ɪɪ. 58 Not for three years to speak with any men.
- 1663 S. Patrick Parable of Pilgrim (1687) xᴠ. 134 When any temptation desires to speak with you, let the answer be ready, that there is other company within.
So if it indeed true that “speaking with someone” is now perceived to be somehow un-British, this is not reflected in the OED as of 1989, nor in the English literature citated.
The phrasal verb “to speak to ━━” has several senses.
To address words or discourse to (a person); to talk to, converse with.
to speak to (see quot. 1837), so as to have conversation or personal acquaintance with one. Freq. in the phr. ‘to know (one) to speak to’.
- c825 Vesp. Psalter xlix. 7 [Ic] sprecu to Israhela folce.
- 971 Blickl. Hom. 141 Heo spræc to þæm weorode & cwæþ [etc.].
- OE Beowulf 1171 Þu on sælum wes‥ond to Geatum spræc mildum wordum.
- c1000 West Saxon Gospels: John (Corpus Cambr.) x. 25 Ic spece [c1160 speke] to eow & ge ne gelyfað. a1325 (1250) Gen. & Exod. (1968) l. 925 After ðis spac god to abram.
- c1384 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Douce 369(2)) (1850) 1 Cor. xiv. 3 He that prophecieth, spekith to men.
- a1400 (1325) Cursor Mundi (Vesp.) l. 11964 Sai þou; i der noght til him speke.
- c1400 Pilgr. Sowle (1483) ɪᴠ. xxiii. 69, I wold haue spoke to them but I ne myght nought.
- 1528 Rede me & be nott Wrothe sig. i iiijv, Thus to the Cardinall he spake.
- 1581 G. Pettie tr. S. Guazzo Ciuile Conuersat. (1586) ɪ. 13 b, If‥you resalute not a friend, he will speake no more to you.
- a1635 R. Sibbes Heavenly Conf. (1656) 15 When he speaks aloof to her, she answereth aloof to him.
- 1651 T. Hobbes Leviathan ɪɪɪ. xxxv. 216 Commanded by a Voice, as one man speaketh to another.
- 1751 E. Haywood Hist. Betsy Thoughtless I. xiv. 165 What reply she made I do not know, being speaking to Wildly at the same time.
- 1837 J. R. Lowell Lett. (1894) I. 21 How I remember the first time I ever saw you ‘to speak to’.
- 1908 R. Bagot Anthony Cuthbert xxvi. 342 It was too late that night to speak to her.
With of, on, or about (a matter, etc.).
- ?c1200 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 10466 Þatt fir. Þatt sannt iohan bapptisste. Spacc offe to þa sanderrmenn.
- a1450 (1410) H. Lovelich Merlin (1904) I. l. 3204 What Scholen we don of this mateer That he to vs spak of now heer?
- 1530 J. Palsgrave Lesclarcissement 727/1, I speke to him of my busynes.
- 1611 Bible (A.V.) 1 Sam. ix. 17 Behold the man whom I spake to thee of.
- 1737 Gentleman's Mag. Aug. 492/1, I have‥spoke to the King of England‥about your Friend.
- 1796 H. Hunter tr. J. H. B. de Saint-Pierre Stud. Nature (1799) III. 234 They spake to me of the various Works of Nature.
- 1804 Med. Jrnl. 12 448, I also spoke to the principal surgeons‥on the subject of vaccination.
- 1888 ‘J. S. Winter’ Bootle's Children iv. 30 Whatever you wish for, you have only to speak to nurse here about it.
Here is the proper citation:
Second edition, 1989; online version March 2012. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/185910; accessed 11 May 2012. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1913.
to meet with
In contrast, the OED does say that for the second of its senses, usage of “to meet with” has apparently recently waned in Britain, although it was once common enough. I’ll omit the citations for all but the second sense, as that is the relevant sense for the meaning under discussion.
- intr. To come across, come upon by chance, find, encounter (a thing or person). Now rare with a personal or physical object.
- intr. To go to see, come together with (a person) intentionally; to have a meeting with. Now chiefly N. Amer.
- c1300 (1225) King Horn (Cambr.) (1901) 155 Þe children ȝede to Tune‥Hy metten wiþ almair king.
- c1380 Sir Ferumbras (1879) 3778 Þat body forþ þai bryngeþ‥to þe pauyllouns‥& meteþ with þᵉ Amyrel.
- a1400 (1325) Cursor Mundi (Vesp.) 20145 In þe temple wit her he met, Anurd hir and tar hir grette.
- 1477 Caxton tr. R. Le Fèvre Hist. Jason (1913) 120 Whan Iason was come to this temple Medea cam & mette with him.
- 1567 G. Turberville Epitaphes, Epigrams f. 123ᵛ, So hazard thou to come Vnto the pointed place, To thwart thy Friend, and meete with him That longs to see thy face.
- 1661 A. Brome Songs & Other Poems 186 Pray come to T.—bring thy beloved Sue, My Mat. and I will meet with her and you.
- 1719 D. Defoe Life Robinson Crusoe 41, I had met with the Portugal Captain.
- 1816 T. Chalmers Let. in W. Hanna Mem. T. Chalmers (1850) II. 78 We fell in with Mr. Cook, who came out to meet with me.
- 1828 Scott Fair Maid of Perth viii, in Chron. Canongate 2nd Ser. II. 227 An appointment to meet with the others of his company at the sign of the Griffin.
- 1968 E. Cleaver Soul on Ice ɪɪ. ii. 89 Robert Kennedy called together a group of ‘influential’ Negro entertainers and athletes to meet with him in secret.
- 1993 N.Y. Times 7 Nov. v. 9/1 Men‥wander home to meet with friends and chew until early evening.
- † intr. To confront (an enemy); = sense 6a. Obs.
- † intr. To come into or be in physical contact with; to reach; to strike. Also of a river: to merge with (another river). Obs.
- † intr. To have sexual intercourse with. Cf. sense 8. Obs.
- intr. To experience, undergo (a particular fortune or treatment); to receive (a particular reaction); = sense 2.
- † intr. To oppose, contend with (an error, objection, or malpractice), take precautions against (a danger); to provide for (an emergency). Also: to cope with (a person). Obs.
- † intr. To agree or be in accord with. Obs.
- † intr. To exact requital; to get even with, pay back, settle with.
- † intr. Sc. To pay (a creditor). Obs. rare.
The requisite source citation is:
Third edition, June 2001; online version March 2012. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/115845; accessed 11 May 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1906.
As I mentioned in comments, for me, there can be a difference in aspect between meeting someone and meeting with someone. The former can be used for an instance of time, while the latter can be used for a duration.
Therefore you can meet someone at a pub, or meet them for a cup of coffee, or meet them for the first time.
However, when meeting with someone, you can say how long that meeting took place, so I could meet with them for two hours.
hawbsl is right. You are more likely to encounter speak with in American English.
It's not really used in the UK. I have only heard speak with being used by Americans, on American TV programmes and films. I remember this because it was so unusual and odd that it surprised me.
It's the same with the words meet with. This one was particularly odd to me, because the word meet on its own is normally enough. It puzzled me for a while until I heard it used in other American TV programmes and I researched the use of it. From a British perspective, it is an unnecessary extra to add the word with to the word meet.
To answer your questions directly, it seems that the differences between these are in their use. The best situations to use them will depend on whether you are speaking American English or not. You can use them if you speak American English, but otherwise they are not necessary and sound odd — particularly to English and other British people.
Yes, we can see from the OED entries that both "speak to" and "speak with" have been in use in British English for quite a while. However, this is another famous example of a divide between BrE and AmE. In BrE the more common preposition in the twentieth century was "speak TO somebody". Martin Parrott argues that "speak to" is standard (British) English, whereas "speak with somebody" has been stigmatised as a lower-class variant. Under the influence of AmE, the variant "speak with somebody" is considered more acceptable in BrE. Looking forward to ngrams or BNC results! :)
However, even in AmE there is a difference between "speak with" and "speak to". For example, the President of the US speaks to the nation.
As for "meet somebody" and "meet with somebody" - also another famous example - I'll post a quote from Pocket Fowler's:
"meet. There are two uses that deserve attention. 1. It is a transitive verb and so it is possible to meet someone, or simply meet. Idiomatically one meets with a circumstance rather than a person, typically something unpleasant or unwelcome; or one meets with a response or reaction, again often unfavourable (This may not meet with the approval of the parents / Her appointment as chief vet met with sniffiness among some farmers).
Now meet is increasingly used with the link word with (or up with, based on meet up) when people are involved, typically in contexts involving prolonged discussion or dealings (the people who will be meeting with the Secretary of State / A few weeks later I met up with them again). This is not entirely a new use: it is recorded in the OED from the 17c in the sense of casual or accidental encounter, including this quotation of 1740 from David Hume: ‘Tis…rare to meet with persons, who can pardon another any opposition he makes to their interest’. It is true to say however that meet with has become fashionable again in contexts of intentional or arranged meeting under the influence of AmE, and tends to be used in contexts where plain meet would be more usual" [emphasis mine - Alex B.]
"meet" Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage. Ed. Robert Allen. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online.