Say and tell: How to talk about talking (1)

by Liz Walter​
say and tell
Most of us spend a lot of time talking – in fact a recent study showed that the average Brit spends 6 months of their life talking about weather alone! It’s no wonder therefore that we often need to describe that activity.

Unfortunately, simple verbs such as speak, say, talk and tell cause a lot of problems for learners of English. This post looks at two of the most common ‘talking’ verbs – say and tell –  and gives advice on how to use them correctly.

We often use say to report what someone else has said, using a that-clause. You can usually leave out ‘that’:

She said (that) she was thirsty.

He says (that) he’s a friend of yours.

For more detailed information about reported speech, look at my previous post on the subject: https://dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2014/08/13/reported-speech-how-to-say-what-someone-told-you/ .

It’s important to remember that when we use the verb say, we do not use the person being spoken to as an indirect object:

He said he was a teacher.

He said me he was a teacher.

If you want to talk about the person being spoken to, you need to use the preposition to:

What did he say to you?

She said something to her friend.

With the verb tell, it is the other way round. With tell, you must use the person being spoken to as an indirect object:

He told us (that) he was from Canada.

He told (that) he was from Canada.

We do not use the preposition to after tell:

Can you tell me what time it is?

Can you tell to me what time it is?

So these are the most important grammar points, but how do we know when to use say and when to use tell?

For reporting something that someone has said, you can use either (but remember the different grammar!):

She said (that) she was thirsty.

She told me (that) she was thirsty.

We often use tell (but not say) with the preposition about when we are talking about a general subject area:

My Dad told me about his childhood.

My Dad said me about his childhood.

We use tell to ask for information:

Can you tell me where to buy a ticket?

We also use tell with a to- infinitive to talk about giving someone instructions:

The pilot told us to fasten our seatbelts.

In addition, there are a number of very common collocations with tell, where it would be incorrect to use say. For example, we tell the truth, tell lies, tell jokes, tell stories, tell secrets and tell someone news.

In my next post I will discuss some other common verbs connected with talking and explain how to avoid making common mistakes with them.

21 thoughts on “Say and tell: How to talk about talking (1)

  1. Pingback: Say and tell: How to talk about talking (1) | englishmoreformal

  2. Emel

    It would be helpful to have some guidance on the use of the verb “to speak”. Some of my students say things like “We spoke about many things” “We talked about many things”

  3. Hadeel Hammam

    In Arabic language we have almost the same variation of the verbs: speak, say, and tell and nearly the same rules, so I find no difficulty to learn the reporting speech rule.

  4. Pingback: Agree with and wait for: common mistakes with verbs and their prepositions | About Words - Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog

  5. Carlos

    Hello.

    I appreciate the article. It’s really insightful.
    Interesttingly, I was reading the famous novel Looking for Alaska by John Green which I found some examples of “said me” or said to me, I’m not able to recall which one but I’m positive that one of them is used.

    I don’t have the book righ now but if you reply me and need some examples I could look it up.

    Thanks

    Carlos

  6. Pingback: Verbs (lexis) | ELT Infodump

  7. Mari Sarah

    Why “to” is not use after “tell”, but “to” is use immediately after “talk”, can you please explain why? Thank you!

    1. Liz Walter

      That’s the problem – we can’t really talk about reasons, you just have to learn the differences – that’s how language is!

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