Five-minute English boost! Say or Tell?
English is full of small, confusing differences that can take years to master. Hopefully, this little guide will help you to think about one of the most common difficulties. Test yourself below!
Say or Tell?
What makes these two irregular verbs extra confusing is that they are often synonymous:
Can I tell you something? (Tell [sb] [sth])
Can I say something to you? (Say [sth] to [sb])
Can I say you something?
Tell needs a ‘recipient’, but say doesn’t:
John said that he didn’t feel well.
John told that he didn’t feel well.
John told Amy that he didn’t feel well.
Generally, say focuses on the act of speaking, whereas tell focuses on the content spoken. We can see this as, usually, say is used for reporting direct speech in the past, but tell is used indirectly:
“I’ll be back by eleven!” Amy said.
Amy told John that she would be back by eleven.
Tell for set phrases
There are some set phrases that always use tell instead of say:
Giving orders : Mary told her son not to put his elbows on the table.
Lying : Jermaine felt bad after telling a lie.
Telling the truth: Jermaine realised that only telling the truth would make him feel better again.
Telling the time: I was six years old when I learnt to tell the time.
Tell as a synonym of ‘decide‘ or ‘determine’:
I can’t tell if the cake is ready yet. (I can’t decide if it’s ready or not)
It is easy to tell a male duck from a female duck because of their colours. (I can determine which is the male and the female)
It is possible to tell sugar from salt with your eyes, but it’s easier with your tongue. (I can distinguish sugar from salt)
Enter the correct form of either to say or to tell in these sentences:
1. Can you _____ me the time please?
2. Maureen _____ me that she drank five cups of tea a day.
3. We have to _____ something to Fred about how dirty his room is.
4. I hope that he isn’t _______ lies!
5. “I’m terribly sorry for the long wait” ______ the waiter.
6. Grace ______ to Pam that she would be back soon.
7. Pam ______ Grace that she would go with her.
8. “What is it?” said Bill. “I can’t _____” replied Joanna.
9. All she wanted was for him to _____ he loved her.
10. Excuse me, sir. Can you _____ me the time, please?
1. Can you tell me the time please?
2. Maureen told me that she drank five cups of tea a day.
3. We have to say something to Fred about how dirty his room is.
4. I hope that he isn’t telling lies!
5. “I’m terribly sorry for the long wait” said the waiter
6. Grace said to Pam that she would be back soon.
7. Pam told Grace that she would go with her.
8. “What is it?” said Bill. “I can’t tell” replied Joanna.
9. All she wanted was for him to say he loved her.
10. Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me the time, please?
How did you do? Do you have any question regarding say or tell? If so, please tell us in the comments section below!