Say and Tell are often confused by English learners. The two words have a very similar meaning and function. When in doubt, follow this general rule:
SAY something (to someone)
TELL someone (something)
WHEN TO USE SAY
Use SAY to report
- He said, ‘I don’t know how to do it.’.
- He said (that) he didn’t know how to do it.
Use SAY before words that are used.
- Say hello or goodbye
- Say please and thank you
- Say Merry Christmas / Happy New Year
- Say you are sorry
- Say yes or no
- Say a prayer
- She always says hello when I see her on the street.
- He said he was sorry, but I didn’t believe him.
- He asked her to marry him and couldn’t believe it when she said yes.
- Parents must teach their children to say please and thank you.
Note: Say does not normally take an object (say him)
Use SAY to ask what a word in English means
Example: How do you say ‘bella’ in English? Beautiful.
WHEN TO USE TELL
We normally use TELL with a person.
- Mark told me that the lesson is starting at 10 a.m.
- The teacher told us that we must do more English exercises.
- Julio told Maria to be quiet.
Use TELL when you mean ‘to instruct’, ‘to inform’, ‘to narrate’ or ‘to order’
- He told me to turn off the computer.
- The teacher told us we don’t have a lesson tomorrow.
Use TELL with who / why / what / when / where / how
Because we use tell to instruct or show a person how to do something something, tell is often used with wh-words.
- Can anyone tell me what time it is?
- He told me where the station is.
- The teacher told us when to the exam will be.
- She told us how to do the homework.
- We told the children why they must learn English.
- She told me who I must speak to in the office.
More Common Expressions with TELL
- Tell the time
- Tell the truth / a lie / tales
- Tell a joke
- Tell a story
- Tell the future
- Tell the difference between two things
- Can you tell me the time please?
- She tells the children a story before they go to sleep at night.
- Who can tell what the future will bring?
- The brothers look very similar. I can never tell the difference between the two of them.
Note: Tell normally takes an object
Note: Neither Say nor Tell can be used with an indirect question
Both words can also be used for direct and indirect speech.
Using Say / Tell correctly can take some time to master. Listening to music which repeats these words in context can help you to remember. Here’s a selection of songs for you: