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
We tell somebody something.
- 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!
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See more: Confusing Words