Lesson – Say Vs. Tell

Say Vs. Tell

Say and Tell are used differently. Using one or the other incorrectly ranks near the top of the most common errors made by English learners. And these are BAD errors – by which I mean that they sound BAD and lower how fluent a learner seems a lot.

The difference between the two


When we use say, we should NOT say WHO we’re saying something to right after the word say. We can only say WHAT we’re saying there. We can say SOMETHING in other words: “I said what I thought.” We can’t say SOMEBODY something: “I said him what I thought.”

We CAN “say something to somebody”: “I said what I thought to them.”. But this isn’t very good either. It isn’t strictly wrong, but it isn’t so fluent. It’s much more natural and better to use TELL in this case: “I told them what I thought.


So with SAY we can’t say WHO we’re saying something to right after we use the word (say). With TELL it’s the opposite: with TELL, you HAVE TO say who you’re telling – practically always (99.99% with a couple of exceptions). You “tell somebody something”: “I told her what I thought.” We can’t tell SOMETHING without saying who first (normally): “I told what I thought.” Also wrong and bad wrong.

The exceptions are with “story”, “joke”, “lie”, “the truth”, and a few others maybe. When these are WHAT are being told, you don’t need to say WHO are being told them, though you still can: “She told a story.” OR She told us a story.” Most of the time, it’s like I said in the last paragraph though. You need to say WHO is being told something right after the word tell and before you say WHAT is being told: “Now I’ve told you the main things you need to know about this.”

Simple rule illustration