Say or tell?

Many languages have just one verb to express both say and tell, but in English there is an important difference between the two. Confusing the two can sometimes change the meaning of the sentence. But, don’t fear! There is a simple trick to remember when to use each verb.

The basic rule is we say something, but we tell someone something.

I said (that) I was leaving.

I told my friend (that) I was leaving.

That is optional in these sentences.

If we use the verb say and wanted to include the person, we need to before the person’s name.

I said to my friend (that) I was leaving.

More example sentences:

We said (that) the meeting room was booked.

We told our colleague (that) the meeting room was booked.

We said to our colleague (that) the meeting room was booked.

They said (that) they would go.

They told us (that) they would go.

They said to us (that) they would go.

Phrases with tell

There are also some special phrases with the verb tell, for example:

  • to tell the truth
  • to tell a lie
  • to tell the difference
  • to tell the time
  • to tell tales

Can you think of more examples?

Are there any other verbs you find difficult to use in English?

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