Say and Tell – Learn their different meanings and uses

Say and tell – English learners often make mistakes with these verbs. There are situations where we can use either, but there are also situations where only one is correct.

Another tricky thing is the grammar patterns tell and say follow. Tell is followed by and object but say isn’t, so we say something but we tell someone something.

And finally there are some common expressions with tell where we don’t follow the normal rules. Learn all about them in this video and start using these verbs correctly.

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Say and tell video script

Vicki, great job with the Boston report. You’re a star! Jay, try to keep up with Vicki. She’s going places.
But I wrote the Boston report. You told her you wrote it?

In lots of situations we can use ‘say’ or ‘tell’ and there’s no difference in meaning.

Hey, if the bank manager calls, say I’m in New York.
But you’re not in New York. You’re here.
But tell her I’m in New York.
Ah!

So there’s no difference in meaning here, but notice the construction is different. After ‘tell’ we say who we’re telling.

So are we ready to start? Where’s Peter?
He told me he might be late.
Ah! And where’s Jay?
He said he might be late too.

So we say something but we tell someone something. Don’t forget that. OK. Now there are some situations where we use the verbs differently. Let’s look at some.

Ah ha! No kidding. All right. Wow!
Is that Scott? Say hi from me.
Vicki says ‘hi’.
Say thank you for the flowers.
Errr. She says ‘thank you for the flowers’. Oh, you’re welcome.
Say sorry about Friday.
Vicki says… Vicki, why don’t you talk to him?
Oh hi Scott! How are you?

We can’t use ‘tell’ here. We have to use ‘say’. So here’s an important thing about ‘say’. We use it with the words someone says. If you’re quoting someone, use ‘say’. Now what about ‘tell’?

Officer, can you tell me what time it is?
Err yeah. It’s two fifteen.

Excuse me. Could you tell me the way to City Hall?

We use ‘tell’ when we’re talking about information or instructions.

Could you tell me the way to City Hall?
Oh sure. You want to go three blocks that way. When you get to the traffic light, turn right. At the stop sign turn left immediately. Go round the circle and into the tunnel.
Thank you. Did you understand what he said?

It’s not just people that can tell us things. We can get information in other ways too.

Now for you folks who’ve never been up on a flight deck before, this is it, and here are the controls. The air speed indicator tell us how fast we’re going. The altimeter tells us how high we are.

So ‘tell’ has another meaning. When we know things because we can see signs, we can tell.

You’ve been lying in the sun again, haven’t you?
How could you tell?

Telling’ is like ‘knowing’ here. This question means how did you know?

Brrr. It’s so cold today.
Yes. It’s a bit chilly.
It’s twenty five degrees. What would that be in England?
Oooh, minus something. But how did you know I was English?
Well, I could tell by your accent.
Oh!

So when we know things because we can recognise signs, we can tell.

Most people fall in love quite a few times in their lives.
Well then, how can you tell when you’re really in love?
Well, I’ll have to think about that.

It’s time to review. Which verb do we use with the words someone says? We use ‘say’. And what about information and instructions? We use ‘tell’. And what about the different sentence constructions? We tell someone something but we say something. Did you remember that? Good!
Then it’s time to look at some special expressions. We normally say who we’re telling after the verb ‘tell’, but there are a few special cases where we don’t have to. Let’s look at some situations and see if you can complete some phrases. Are you ready?

Lola, you’re so tired. Let’s take you up to bed. Can you tell me a story first?
Hmmm. It’s late but OK. Once upon a time there was a little girl…

Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Why don’t you answer him?
I don’t know what he’s saying.
He’s asking you if you’ll swear to tell the truth.
Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Certainly.

Do you want me to tell you a secret?
Yeah!
My daddy snores.

So this one’s Coke and this one’s Pepsi.
Err. I can’t tell the difference.

Did you get them right? Let’s check. We can tell stories. We can tell the truth and we can tell lies as well. We can tell secrets, and when two things are similar we can talk about telling the difference. And that’s it! Now you can tell when to use ‘say’ and when to use ‘tell’.

An English gardener in England was showing some Americans one of those wonderful English lawns.
And this English gardener said…
He said all you have to do is get some good grass and roll it every day for six hundred years. I heard that story before you were born. English men tell it when they’re feeing down in the mouth.

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4 thoughts on “Say and Tell – Learn their different meanings and uses

  • March 25, 2018 at 2:49 pm
    Permalink

    Hello Vicki,

    Thank you for your wonderful videos. It helps me alot.
    Could you make a video about “Talk and Speak”?

    Thank you,
    Narges

    Reply
    • March 27, 2018 at 4:23 am
      Permalink

      Hello Narges and welcome! That’s an excellent suggestion. We’ll add it to the list. Thank you!

      Reply
  • January 16, 2019 at 10:01 am
    Permalink

    finally, I understood it.
    Thanks for your excellent video.
    Could you explain the difference between “Talk” and “Speak”??

    Reply
    • January 18, 2019 at 2:37 pm
      Permalink

      So glad it was useful Amin. We’ll try to look at talk and speak another day.

      Reply

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