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)



Use SAY to report

Example Sentences:

  • 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

Example sentences:

  • 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.


We normally use TELL with a person.

Example sentences:

  • 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’

Example sentences:

  • 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.

Example sentences:

  • 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

Example sentences:

  • 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:

Songs with Say
Austin Mahone, Say Somethin’
John Mayer, Say
Destiny’s Child, Say My Name
David Gray, Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

Songs with Tell
Selena Gomez, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know
Amna, Tell Me Why
Madonna,  Live To Tell
Taylor Dayne, Tell It To My Heart

  Discover, Find Out, Uncover – What’s The Difference?To Meet, To Know, To Get To Know   


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