Difference between say and tell (said and told)

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say vs tell
Difference between say and tell

Difference between say and tell

I see and hear mistakes in the use of these two words almost daily. We all know that these expressions have something to do with speaking. However, they are not synonyms. So what is the difference between them and what does each of them really mean?


We use the verb SAY to mean ‘to say SOMETHING, to utter something’, always with a direct object.

  • He didn’t say when he would be back.
  • They didn’t even say goodbye.
  • ‘I’m John,’ he said.
  • They left without saying anything.
  • He said that he was really hungry.

We can also add an indirect object, i.e. to whom, but it must always come after the direct object and with the preposition TO: say something to somebody

  • He said goodbye to his friends.
  • ‘That’s a problem,’ I said to myself.
  • She said to me that she was really happy.

SAY can also be used in other phrases, such as IT IS SAID THAT… (people say that…).

  • It is said that dogs are better companions than cats.

With the verb SAY, you cannot use the DIRECT object (i.e. ‘to tell WHO’):

  • Say me what the time is.
  • I said my mother about my problems.


TELL means ‘to tell’ in the sense of ‘to communicate, to convey information’. It is important here to connect the indirect object first – to tell WHO – and then to express the direct object – to tell WHAT.

Compare the two verb patterns:

say something (to somebody)
tell somebody something

Now some examples of how to use TELL:

  • Tell me what you want to do.
  • I told my parents about my problems at school.
  • Don’t tell anyone your address or phone number.
  • Steve told me that he needed some money.

If we need to express the direct object with the personal pronoun IT (e.g. ‘tell me’), the pronoun IT is omitted. So instead of tell me it, we just use tell me.

  • They knew he was sick but nobody told me.
  • They wanted to know what happened, so I told them.
  • We need to know where our daughter is. You’ve got to tell us.

Here the direct object is understood to be ‘it’, but it remains unstated.

The verb TELL is very often used in conjunction with the subject and infinitive – TELL sb to DO sth – telling someone to do something:

  • He told me to open the door for him.
  • Where have you been? I told you to wait here.

TELL is also used to mean ‘to narrate’, e.g. ‘tell a story’, ‘tell jokes’, or in the phrases ‘tell the truth’ and ‘tell a lie’.

  • My mom used to tell me a story before bed every day.
  • Jason tells awesome jokes. We always laugh a lot when he comes over.
  • I didn’t take the money. I’m telling the truth!

TELL can also mean ‘to tell the difference’:

  • He can’t tell right from wrong.

Difference between say and tell

The words ‘say’ and ‘tell’ have already turned the head of many an unfortunate English student, and no wonder. The difference between them is not that great. They may be used differently, but they have quite similar meanings. So who’s to know?

While ‘tell’ translates as ‘to tell someone‘, ‘say’ means ‘to say something’. So both words have the same meaning of ‘to say’, but they cannot be used interchangeably and in the same way.

Tell and say are both irregular verbs

The irregular verb say has the following forms:

  • Infinitive: say
  • Past simple: said
  • Past participle: said

The irregular verb tell has the following forms:

  • Infinitive: tell
  • Past simple: told
  • Past participle: told
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