Say vs. Tell

What is the difference?


Say and tell are two commonly confused words in the English language. When do you use each one?

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These two words have very similar meanings, because they both talk about giving information to another person using words. However, the emphasis is different for each one!

We'll look at explanations about what each word means and review some example sentences to see how each one works.

Remember that it's very common to use say and tell in reported speech.


Say

Say is a verb that means to express information in words.

With say, the emphasis is on the information.

Say is always followed immediately by what is said.

If you want to mention the listener, you can use the word to at the end of the statement. Study the examples.


Examples:

  • Jefferson said a very bad word to the teacher. We were all surprised!
        - What did Jefferson say? A very bad word.
        - In this example, we also mention the listener with to.
  • She said something about a party.
        - In this case, the speaker can't remember exactly what was said. He just knows it was something about a party.
  • There is a new secretary working in the office. Be sure to say hello to her!
        - What should you say? Hello!
        - In this example, we also mention the listener with to.
  • They said, "Start without us. We'll be a bit late."
        - What did they say? "Start without us. We'll be a bit late."
  • Irene said it wasn't a problem.
        - What did Irene say? That it wasn't a problem.


Tell

Tell is a verb that means to communicate information to a person in words.

With tell, the emphasis is on the listener.

Tell
is always followed immediately by whom we tell.

Examples

  • Kim told Jeremy and Allen about the meeting first.
        - The first people she told were Jeremy and Allen.
  • Please tell your friends not to call the house so late.
        - The people you should give this information to are your friends.
  • They told me that class was cancelled. 
        - Whom did they tell? They told me.
  • We will tell everyone about the new system and give lots of training before we begin working with it.
        - Whom will they tell about the new system? Everyone.
  • Please tell your supervisor if you are sick and cannot come to work.
        - Whom should you notify if you are sick? Your supervisor.


More Tips

When you have to decide whether to use say or tell, think about the focus of your sentence.

If you want to put the emphasis on the information (what you say) first, you should use say.

If you want to put the emphasis on the listener (whom you tell) first, you should use tell.

These were the differences between say and tell. Now that you understand, it's time to practice! Get our ESL Books.

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