Confusing words: say, tell

Say and tell both mean ‘communicate with someone verbally’. However, we use the two words differently.

Here’s the basic difference:
We say something
BUT
We
tell somebody something.

Examples:

  • Michael said he was tired. OR Michael told me he was tired.
  • Sara says she’s moving house. OR Sara tells me she’s moving house.
  • Pete said: “I’m hungry, Elizabeth.” OR Pete told Elizabeth he was hungry.

We can also use this construction:
say [something] to somebody.

  • She said something to me but I didn’t understand.
  • She didn’t say anything to us.
  • My neighbour always says good morning to me.

When only tell is possible

We use tell when we are giving facts or information. If we use an object pronoun (me, him, her, someone, etc.) or someone’s name, we use tell, not say:

  • tell somebody (that) . . .
  • say somebody (that)
  • tell somebody something
  • tell somebody about something
  • tell somebody who/when/where, etc.

There are also some set phrases with tell:

  • tell (someone) a lie
  • tell (someone) the truth
  • tell (someone) a story.

When only say is possible

We use say when our words do not contain facts or information, for example when we greet people:

  • She said hello to me.
  • She said: ‘Hello’.
  • She said me hello.
  • She told me hello.
  • She said no.
  • She said: ‘No!’
  • She told no.
  • She said me: ‘No!’.

We can use say that if we want to give information:

  • He said that he likes football.
  • He told that he likes football.

 

Now try this quick quiz to see how well you can use say and tell.

Instructions: fill in each gap using say or tell in its correct form. Be careful!

questions go herescore goes here

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See more: Confusing Words

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. See all posts by Stuart

10 Comments

  1. khalid - June 29, 2012, 1:57 am Reply

    Very useful lesson.
    Thank you Sir,

  2. Gül Öztürk - January 22, 2013, 10:06 pm Reply

    This was a great lesson and adding a quiz after was a real great idea. Thank you so much!

  3. kalev - February 11, 2013, 9:52 pm Reply

    Gracias, me fue de mucha ayuda.
    siempre uno tiene duda al momento de usarlos.

  4. Isabel - February 16, 2013, 2:10 pm Reply

    Thanks! But I have a doubt.. If “say” CAN´T be used to give information, how come we can say something like “She said she had been studying the whole afternoon, but actually she had been out” This kind of sentence is possible, isn´t it?

    • Stuart Cook - February 16, 2013, 7:39 pm Reply

      Yes, your example is correct, Isabel.

      We can use ‘say’ to give information but if we want to include a personal pronoun or name we need to use ‘tell’. Thus, ‘She said she had been studying’ is correct, but if we want to say who she informed we need to use ‘tell’: ‘She told them she had been studying … ‘

  5. Kirsty Burton - June 16, 2013, 7:20 pm Reply

    Hi..

    Some of this is very useful but there are a lot of details missing.

    For “tell” there are 3 constructions:

    Tell me to… + VERB (instruction/command)
    Tell me that… + PHRASE (fact/information)
    Tell me about + NOUN (fact/information)

    For say:

    Say that… + PHRASE
    Say + NOUN (speech- direct or indirect)

    Hope this helps 🙂

    • Stuart Cook - June 17, 2013, 8:18 pm Reply

      Thanks for the input, Kirsty

      You’re right that not every construction is covered – but actually five of your six examples are. 🙂

      The point of the article was not really to go into every detail and list all constructions, but to simply highlight the difference between ‘say something’ and ‘tell [pronoun] something’.

      All feedback appreciated, though!

      Stuart

  6. hoggirl - October 23, 2013, 1:49 pm Reply

    can the say be replaced by speak in these rules?

    • Stuart Cook - October 24, 2013, 7:43 pm Reply

      No, we can’t use speak instead of say and tell.
      We use speak like this:
      speak (the action of communicating with words)
      speak to someone
      speak to someone about something
      speak French
      speak a language.

  7. Heathenkitties - March 2, 2015, 6:32 am Reply

    Thank you for a great explanation!

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