What’s the difference between SAY and TELL? (I’ll TELL you the answer!)

SAY vs. TELL

What’s the difference between SAY and TELL?

My 4 favorite words to hear from a student are: “I have a question.”

If I can help my students with a specific question that they have I am so happy! When one of my private students asked me – What’s the difference between SAY and TELL? – I TOLD them the answer. Now I want to share it with all of you!

Both verbs are used when we share information but the grammar (How we use them) is slightly different. Here is a quick way to understand the difference that I teach all my students.

We SAY something“Jacob SAID he will be late.”
We TELL someone  – “Jacob TOLD me that he will be late.”

Learn the different verb forms with lots of example sentences. Notice in the examples we always SAY something but TELL someone.

From Oxford Learner’s Dictionary SAY

Say never has a person as the object. You say something or say something to somebody.
“Anne said that she was tired.

Tell usually has a person as the object and often has two objects:
“Anne told me (that) she was tired.”

oxford learner’s dictionary

Say Vs Tell site menu

Say Vs Tell - SAY

SAY – meaning and example sentences

say verb  – to speak or tell somebody something, using words

SAY – Verb tenses (conjugation)

InfinitiveTO SAY

  • I’d like to say something about this.

Present simpleSAY

  • We just wanted to stop by and say hello.

Present simple Third-person singularSAYS

  • Everyone says that I look like my Dad.

Past simpleSAID

  • Roger said he might be late tonight.

Past participleSAID

  • People have said that my whole life.

[Haven’t said is the perfect tense. HAVE + the past participle. Learn more about perfect tense grammar HERE]

Continuous tenseSAYING

  • Peter was saying the same thing 2 years ago.
Say Vs Tell - TELL

TELL – meaning and example sentences

tell verb to pay attention to somebody/something that you can hear LINK

TELL – Verb tenses (conjugation)

Infinitive TO TELL

  • I have to tell you something important.

Present simpleTELL

  • Let me tell you a story.

Present simple Third-person singularTELLS

  • My uncle always tells me funny jokes.

Past simpleTOLD

  • Michael told me that Jim and Jeanette got engaged.

Past participleTOLD

  • Clean your room! I’ve told you 3 times now!

[Have TOLD is the perfect tense. HAVE + the past participle. Learn more about perfect tense grammar HERE]

Continuous tenseTELLING

  • I’m telling you for the last time.

Say vs Tell examples

We can use the verb SAY to share something that was written and gives us information. (In a newspaper or guide, or on a sign for example.)

  • The newspaper said it will rain today. 
  • The instructions say we have to attach parts C and D first.
  • The sign says no smoking.

A: I asked Andrea what time she is coming to the party.
B: What did she say?

A: Did you know it was Rhonda’s birthday?
B: No one knew, she didn’t tell anyone.

Tell can be used without a person with words like story, joke, lie, etc.

  • I remember sitting around the campfire listening to my grandfather tell stories when I was young.
  • My uncle always tells funny jokes.
  • It’s not good to tell a lie.

Idioms with SAY and TELL

From http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/

Idioms with SAY

easier said than done – to be much more difficult to do than to talk about

A: You should start your own company and be rich like Mark Zuckerberg.
B: Yeah right, easier said than done.

go without saying – to be very obvious (you don’t need to say it) or easy to predict 

A: Having a baby will be a lot of work.
B: I think that goes without saying

I wouldn’t say no (to something) – used to say that you would like something or to accept something that is offered

If the boss wanted to give me a raise I wouldn’t say no

let’s just say – used when commenting on a situation to suggest that you could say something more or worse but prefer not to

A: Why is Lisa in such a bad mood today?
B: Let’s just say she’s having some trouble at home with her husband. 

say no more – used to say that you understand exactly what somebody means or is trying to say, so it is unnecessary to say anything more

It sounds like you have a lot to do this week, Bill. Say no more. I’ll help you with this. 

you can say that again – I agree with you completely

A: It is way too hot yesterday.
B: You can say that again!  I was sweating as soon as I stepped out of my house.

Idioms with TELL

a little bird told me – used to say that somebody told you something but you do not want to say who it was

A: I heard that Luke is going to propose to Kristen.
B: How did you hear that?
A: A little bird told me

tell me about it – used to say that you understand what somebody is talking about and have had the same experience

A: Working overtime every day is terrible.
B: Tell me about it, I haven’t seen my kids in 4 days because I get home so late.

tell me another one – used to tell somebody that you do not believe what they have said

A: I just found a great new way to easily make $10,000 in just 3 weeks. 
B: Yeah sure, tell me another one

to tell (you) the truth – used when admitting something

I don’t think I’m going to go to Travis’ party this Saturday. To tell you the truth I don’t really like him that much. 

you’re telling me – I completely agree with you

A: The new girl in our class is gorgeous.
B: You’re telling me! She looks like a model.

Phrasal Verbs with TELL

Tell off/Tell someone offto speak angrily to somebody for doing something wrong

I didn’t do any of my chores yesterday and my Dad really told me off at dinner last night.

Tell on to tell a person in authority about something bad that somebody has done

I played soccer with my friends instead of doing my chores. My little brother told on me so I got in trouble.

Do you have Confusing English questions? (Get Answers!)

I have been teaching English as a second language since 2006. During that time I have been asked lots of great questions by real students. Students often ask me about Confusing English.

I have made a post that links over 35 Confusing English blog posts. Click the link and check it out. https://worldenglishblog.com/confusing-english-guide/

Say Vs Tell - infographic

Say Vs. Tell Video

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: