Is say and tell making you crazy in English? It seems to be an area of English that most of my students are unable to master. When they sit down and study the grammar of say and tell and then do a few practise exercises it’s not a problem. But why are there mistakes almost every time students try to use say and tell in conversation?
It’s a case or rewiring the brain. In many languages say and tell use the same word and the same grammar. While say and tell are close in meaning in English there are differences and the grammar is a little different. For example, “tell” is often used for a stronger effect especially when an order to do something is given. “The boss told me to write the report by tomorrow.” Compare to “The boss said I should write the report by tomorrow.” In this example, “said” feels much weaker and not so much like an order.
Both verbs involve the act of speaking, and both can be used to report someone else’s speech, so how do you know when to use them?
The simplest rule to remember is this
- We SAY something
- We TELL someone something
- TELL is usually followed by a personal object (the person you are taking to) for example:
“I told Carl that he had to take a test.” “Can you tell me what room the test is in?”
“Please don’t tell me the answers until I have finished.”
- SAY is usually used without an object. for example:
“She said Ray (that) Ray had to take the test.” “She said the test was in room 14.”
“The teacher said that the test was tomorrow.”
- If you want to use a personal object after SAY, you can use “said to” as in
Sam said to John ”she was busy” or Sam said to me that she was studying
However, as always, there are exceptions. There are a few set phrases that always use TELL and not SAY.
- tell (someone) a story or tell a story
- tell (someone) a lie or tell a lie
- tell (someone) the truth or tell the truth
- tell the future (= to know what the future will bring)
- tell the time (= know how to read a clock)