Someone say me English vocabulary is difficult to master. Or did they tell me…? One of the trickiest English language lessons to master is the difference between say and tell. It might appear as a simple distinction, but it’s one I see get mixed up all the time, especially with ESL speakers. Thankfully, there are a few rules on how to use each properly. I’ll go over them.
Say vs. Tell
“Say” and “tell” have a difference in meaning but are both ways of reporting information or ideas that have been communicated verbally. The major difference is that when you use “say,” it is not necessary to specify with whom the thoughts or information were discussed. When you use “tell,” you must do so.
What Is the Meaning of Tell and Say?
The words “tell” and “say” have pretty similar meanings.
“Say” means using your voice to express something in words. “Tell” means you’re either writing or saying something to someone.
While they are words that have similar meanings, there are rules about when to use each.
What Is the Difference Between Say and Tell in Reported Speech?
The biggest difference in usage kicks in when using reported speech. In reported speech, we use “tell” to reproduce what a person said and not include the quote itself.
- Correct: She told me she wanted to visit her parents.
- Incorrect: She told me, “I want to visit my parents.”
“Say” is used in reported speech when we want to reproduce the exact quote, and the message receiver isn’t part of the sentence.
- I was there when she said, “You need to finish this essay by Friday.”
- “You can only pay cash. Our POS isn’t working”, said the cashier.
Where to Use Tell and Say
The easiest way to tell between these two words is to think of it this way:
- You say something.
- You tell someone something.
“Tell” is usually accompanied by a personal object. For example:
- Hannah told me she was in love.
- You keep telling me the same thing every day.
We could also use “say” in similar contexts, but it would need to be accompanied by “to” + someone. Examples:
- “I’m not feeling well today,” Jenna said to me.
- Remy said a lot of hurtful things to his mother.
There are certain English expressions where you always have to use “tell” and never “say”:
- To tell someone a story
- To tell the time
- To tell the future
- To tell someone the truth
Can Say and Tell Be Used Interchangeably?
While some people use these words interchangeably, this is not correct. The words tend to have different meanings, and with the examples given in the other sections, it should be clearer when the situation calls for one or the other.
How Do You Use Say in a Sentence?
Here are some examples I came up with of how to use “say”:
- You should say goodbye to your grandparents before you leave.
- I wouldn’t say this is the best lasagna I’ve ever had.
- Can you tell me exactly what he said?
- Tim didn’t say if he was happy with the new contract terms.
- They say you should avoid drinking coffee on an empty stomach.
- You don’t know? Is that all you can say?
How Do You Use Tell in a Sentence?
Here are some ways to use “tell” in sentences:
- Don’t tell me you never did that!
- Who’s to tell whether I’m right or wrong?
- It’s time to come forward and tell the truth.
- Emily told everyone she wasn’t comfortable with how the negotiations went.
The words “tell” and “say” have pretty similar meanings, but there are rules about when to use each. The biggest difference in usage kicks in when using reported speech. In reported speech, we use “tell” to reproduce what a person said and not include the quote itself. “Say” is used in reported speech when we want to reproduce the exact quote and the message receiver isn’t part of the sentence.