SAY or TELL – know the difference…

Which verb should I use – SAY or TELL?

The verbs Say and Tell are easily confused because they both mean
to speak (or talk) to someone. (See Lesson B2.2 for Speak and Talk).

The difference is not in the meaning, but in how they are used:

  • We say something.
  • We tell somebody (something).

  1. The verb SAY is usually followed by what we are talking about.
    But TELL is followed by who we are talking to. (Who is a personal object).
    For example:

    • Jim SAID that he was going to work. (What did he say? He said that he was going to work).
    • Jim TOLD Mary he was going to work. (Who was he talking to? He was talking to Mary).

  3. If we do want to use a personal object with SAY, we must also use the preposition TO:
    • Jim SAID TO Mary that he was going to work.

    But we do not use the preposition TO with TELL:

    • Jim TOLD Mary. (Correct). But never: Jim told TO Mary. (Incorrect)

  5. We use TELL to give an order (as in the Imperative Tense) or to give out information.
    For example:

    • We TELL our children that they must behave.
    • John TOLD me that he would be late.

  7. SAY and TELL are both often used with Indirect or Reported Speech, (see Lesson B2.3).
    For example:

    • Lesley SAID that she wanted to go swimming.
    • Lesley TOLD ME that she wanted to go swimming.

    But we don’t use SAY or TELL for questions with Indirect Speech. For this, we must use ASK.
    For example:

    • Mary ASKED whether John had gone to work.
    • I ASKED Lesley if she would like to go swimming.

  9. SAY can also be used to talk about an opinion, (or what a person would say, if they were asked).
    For example:

    • I’d SAY that Lesley would probably like to go swimming.
    • They SAY that swimming is good for you.
    • Swimming is SAID to be beneficial for your health.

Some commonly used phrases with the verb SAY:

What did you say? Anything you say.
Did you say something? Need I say more?
Never say never. They say that love is blind.
Needless to say. I can’t say for sure.
Says who? Do as I say, not as I do.
Did you mean what you said? I’m sorry to have to say that…

Some commonly used phrases with the verb TELL:

Tell me a story. I promise not to tell anyone.
Tell someone where to go. Tell someone off. (Scold)
What can I tell you? Tell me what to do!
Tell me what happened. Don’t tell a soul.
Tell me about it. I’ll tell you a secret.

The following phrases with TELL don’t use a personal object, as it is often understood:

It’s wrong to tell a lie. I promise to tell the truth.
Don’t tell tales. Tell the difference between…
Tell the time. Tell (foretell) the future.


Related Content:

Cambridge Dictionaries Online – Say or Tell.
BBC World Service – Say or Tell.
Washington Edu. – Say or Tell.

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