See you on the march! (The language of protests)

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by Kate Woodford

On September 20th, four million people across the globe expressed their concern and anger about climate change by demonstrating (=gathering or walking in a public place to show their opinion). We thought this a good time to look at the language of demonstrating.

First up, the verb protest is a synonym for ‘demonstrate’: Employees are protesting against the cuts. In US English especially, ‘protest’ is often used transitively: Students protested the laws. A phrase that is frequently used, especially in newspapers, to mean ‘protest’ is take to the streets: Millions took to the streets in the largest environmental protest in history.

Protest’ is also a noun. We talk about holding or staging a protest: They’re holding a protest in the town square./We decided to stage a protest.

The noun from ‘demonstrate’ is demonstration. It is sometimes shortened, informally, to demo. Again, we talk about holding or staging a demonstration/demo: Students held/staged a demonstration outside the law courts.

Most protests are peaceful/peaceable or non-violent. Those that are not are often described in newspapers as ‘angry’: There were angry protests in central London.

When an event causes a protest, newspapers often report it as sparking a protest: The bill has sparked mass protests in both major cities.

People attending protests are called demonstrators or protesters: Up to 100,000 protesters are expected in the capital.

A march is a public event in which people walk somewhere to show their opinion about something. We say that people go on a march: She’s going on an animal rights march this Saturday. March’ is also a verb. If people march on somewhere, they deliberately march towards it as part of the protest: They marched on the Pentagon to demand an end to the war.

When a demonstration or march becomes noisy, violent and uncontrolled, it is often referred to as a riot. A riot may erupt, meaning it suddenly starts: A riot erupted after police arrested two men. ‘Riot’ is also a verb: Students are rioting in the capital.

Protesters often hold or carry with them placards (= large pieces of card, etc. with messages) or banners (= long pieces of material with messages). They usually chant (=sing or shout a phrase repeatedly): Demonstrators chanted, ‘Whose planet? Our planet!’. They sometimes chant into megaphones (= cone shaped devices) to make their voices louder.

Finally, thinking about what demonstrators actually do during a protest, they may block roads, preventing traffic from entering a place: Climate protesters blocked roads near the port of Dover. Sometimes they occupy a building or other space, moving into it and taking control of it: Demonstrators occupied both public squares in the capital city. In order to occupy a space, they may stage a sit-in, sitting down and refusing to leave, or a die-in in which they lie down and refuse to leave.

20 thoughts on “See you on the march! (The language of protests)

  1. Hello,

    One thing I always look for in your writing is clever/effective constructions, and here I have found one: Those that are not are often described in newspapers as ‘angry’.

    Thanks for the bit of food for my thought!

      1. You’re welcome, Ms Woodford.

        By the way, the below looks slightly incomplete:
        ‘We thought this [is] a good time to look at the language of demonstrating.’

        Your sentence is perhaps missing the verb ‘is’. With the verb ‘is’, the sentence looks complete, and of note, using the verb ‘is’ is one of the options of rewording – the other is using the preposition ‘as’.


    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Nifras. Thanks for your query. Actually the sentence ‘We thought this a good time to look at the language of demonstrating.’ is fine as it is. The sentence could be written more fully as ‘We thought this was a good time…’ or ‘We thought this would be a good time…’ but it makes sense without ‘was’ or ‘would be’. (It’s an example of ellipsis). Best wishes, Kate

  2. How does a rally compare to a demonstration?
    When a politician visits a town and holds a speech, is that a rally? It is certainly not a demonstration.
    Can you call any demonstration a rally, e.g. would a climate protest gathering be also a rally?

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi! Good question! A rally can be positive – a gathering in support of something or someone, for example a public gathering to support a politician. A demonstration is always against something. I hope that helps.

      1. Laurent

        To complete the “demonstration” picture, there is a military use. If my unit “demonstrates” on the enemy’s right flank, we make a lot of obvious noise & fuss as a diversion from his (sic) left, where the real action is planned. Still, as you said, against something.

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