‘Say’ Something, ‘Tell’ Someone

09 August, 2019

This week we answer a question from Medard Luck. Medard writes:


Ask a Teacher
Ask a Teacher

"Give the difference between ‘to tell' and ‘to say." – Medard Luck


Dear Medard,

"To tell" and "to say" both describe a person communicating with others. To understand the difference between the two, consider the words right after "tell" and "say."

In general, the word right after "tell" describes whom the speaker is talking to. The words right after "say" describe what the speaker is saying.

Let us look at "tell" first. Imagine you have a plan that you do not want anyone else to know. When your parents ask you what you are doing tonight, you tell them a lie. But later, you tell your sister your secret.

In these examples, the listeners are "them" and "your sister." They are identified right after the word "tell." It would not be correct to write, "You say your parents a lie"; or "You say your sister a secret."

If you want to use the word "say" correctly, try writing the information the speaker is communicating. For example, when you talk to your sister, you say that you are leaving the house after dark. You add, "Don't say anything to Mom and Dad!"

Here, "say" is followed by the words "that" and "anything." These words commonly follow the word "say," along with "where," "when," "something," and "to." Lines of dialogue also often come after "say."

Here are some other examples to help you practice. Imagine that one day after work, you meet some friends for a meal. When your first friend arrives at the restaurant, she is very unhappy. "Tell me what is wrong," you urge.

She says, "My co-worker told me I talk too loudly. He says to be more quiet."

You answer, "That wasn't very nice. Say where I can meet him, and I will talk to him."

A little later, another friend joins you at the restaurant. He tells you how happy he is, so you ask why.

He says, "I took the bus here and the payment machine was broken, so the driver said all rides are free."

"He told you that?" you answer. "That was nice of him!"

Then a third friend arrives at the restaurant. She says that she has some very big news. "Just say when you are ready to hear it," she jokes.

"Tell us!" the group shouts.

She says, "I'm six months pregnant!"

"Six months!" you answer. "Why didn't you say something sooner?"

She says, "I wanted to tell you all at the same time. I was waiting for us to get together."

Do you see the pattern? "Tell" is almost always followed by the listener. And "say" is almost always followed by the words the speaker is saying.

And that's Ask a Teacher!

I'm Pete Musto

Just for fun, play with the sentences below. See if you can use "tell" and "say" correctly.

I _____________ my teacher I am studying English.

He _____________ that I am doing well!

Pete Musto wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. We want to hear from you. Do you have a question for the teacher? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

dialoguen. talk or speech involving two people or a small group of people between two or more people

practicev. to do something again and again in order to become better at it

joke(s) – v. to say things that are meant to cause laughter

patternn. the regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done