It is surprising that social workers, who are so largely dependent on language, should have given such little attention to words and to what it means to speak a language. Their activity has been described as the attempt to cure through talk, and their case records contain in summary or verbatim form accounts of innumerable conversations with their clients. A significant part of social work training seems to consist in the correct appreciation of a group of key terms, such as ‘acceptance’, ‘self-determination’ and so on, and the literature of social work seems concerned to repeat (rather than articulate) a particular verbal tradition. Yet social workers pay little attention to language, their own or other people’s. At present they seem preoccupied with questions concerning their role in society; should they, for instance, progress from being ‘therapists’ to becoming ‘reformers’. Such questions cannot be satisfactorily answered, since no one has yet considered how we can recognise ‘an advance’ in social work.