Pre-intermediate / Intermediate level
The main meaning of say is to speak or tell somebody something, using words.
say = to speak
The main meaning of tell is to give information to somebody by speaking or writing.
tell = to give information
Here’s the basic difference:
We say something.
We tell somebody something.
Which word to use?
Say never has a person as the object. You say something or say something to somebody.
We can also use this structure:
say [something] to somebody.
Remember that we use a phrase with 'to'.
Say is often used when you are giving somebody’s exact words:
You can use say about and say something about:
Say can also be used with a clause when the person you are talking to is not mentioned:
Tell usually has a person as the object and often has two objects:
If we use an object pronoun (me, him, her, someone, etc.) or someone’s name, we use tell, not say:
It is often used with ‘that’ clauses:
Tell is usually used when somebody is giving facts or information, often with what, where, etc:
Tell is also used when you are giving somebody instructions:
When only tell is possible
We use tell when we are giving facts or information. If we use an object pronoun (me, him, her, someone, etc.) or someone’s name, we use tell, not say.
Structures with tell:
There are also some set phrases with tell:
When only say is possible
We use say when our words do not contain facts or information, for example when we greet people:
We can use say that if we want to give information:
Structures with say:
Now try this quick exercise to see how well you can use say and tell.
Instructions: fill in each gap using say or tell in its correct form. Be careful!
1. Tell; 2. say; 3. said; 4. tell; 5. tells; 6. tells; 7. say; 8. tell; 9. tell; 10. told; 11. say; 12. say; 13. told;
14. says; 15. say;
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