The Difference Between Say and Tell

Jeanette Bazeley, June 8, 2021

Photograph courtesy of Official

The verbs say and tell have similar meanings. They both mean “to communicate verbally with someone.” But we often use them differently.

The simple way to think of the differences between say and tell is: You say something. You tell someone something.

You say somethingYou tell someone something
Jason said that he was tired.Jason told Sara that he was tired.
Michael says you have a new job.‎‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎ ‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‎‎ ‎‎ Michael tells me you have a new job.
Tristan said: “I love you.”Tristan told Clara that he loved her.

But of course, it’s not always so easy, and there are more rules to help you understand when to use say and when to use tell. Let’s break it down a little more.

Grammar Rules for Say and Tell

Personal Object

We usually follow tell with a personal object (the person that we are speaking to). We usually use say without a personal object:

  • She told me that she loved John. / She said that she loved John.
  • He told everybody that he had to leave. / He said that he had to leave.

With say, we sometimes (but not usually) use “to someone”:

  • He said to me that he was tired.
  • Tara said to Ram that he had done very well.
  • Anthony said to her, "I hope you come soon."

Direct speech

We can use say with direct speech. We use tell only with direct speech that is an instruction or piece of information:

  • Amanda said, “Hello John. How are you?” “I’m fine,” he said.
  • He told her, “Open the door quietly.”
  • She told me, “I have never been to England.”

We can use say with direct questions, but we cannot use tell:

  • She said, “Do you love me?”
  • The policeman said to the prisoner, “Where were you at 8 pm?”

Reported speech

We can use both say and tell to talk about reported information:

  • She said that it was raining.
  • She told me that she would call at 2pm.

We cannot use say or tell to talk about reported questions. We must use ask (or a similar verb):

  • She asked if I had ever been there.
  • They asked what I wanted to eat.
  • She asked where he lived.
  • He inquired if she wanted to go home.

Orders and Advice

We use tell + object + infinitive for orders or advice:

  • She told him to sit down.
  • They told me not to wait.
  • Tell Neil to have a holiday and forget her.    

Say and Tell in Popular Songs

If you learn by listening, a great option is to listen to English podcasts or music, or watch English movies or TV shows, to hear how natives use say and tell. As you learn these rules, and hear English being spoken, eventually you’ll be able to hear the differences between say and tell, and know when to use each.

Click through these links to hear say and tell being used correctly in popular songs:

“Say Something” by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera:

“When You Say Nothing at All” with Ronan Keating:

“Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child:

“Santa, Tell Me” by Ariana Grande:

Common Phrases and Expressions with Say and Tell

Practice saying these phrases and expressions aloud, and repeat them to yourself.

  • Tell a joke
  • Tell a lie
  • Tell a secret
  • Tell a story
  • Tell the time
  • Tell the difference
  • Tell someone’s future
  • Tell the truth
  • So they say
  • As we say
  • To say the least
  • Needless to say
  • I dare say
  • The final say

In Summary

Read through the chart below, which summarizes the rules for when we use say and when we use tell.

CorrectIncorrectBecause we cannot...
Lena told Sam to go away.Lena said Sam to go away.Say someone to do something
My daughter told me that she was‏‏‎ tired.My daughter said me that she was tired.Say someone something
He said that he loves Italian opera.He told that he loves Italian opera.Tell something
Theresa told me she was coming.Theresa told to me that she was coming.Tell to someone
Ronald always tells lies.Ronald always says lies.Say a lie
Federico said to his brother. “Let’s turn on the TV.” (Federico told his brother: “Turn on the TV.”) (My teacher told me: “I was born in 1937.”)    Federico told his brother: “Let’s turn on the TV.”  Tell somebody “direct speech” (except instructions and information)
She asked if I wanted to come.She said if I wanted to come.  Say or tell a reported question
My friend asked what I wanted to do.My friend told what I wanted to do.

Was this post helpful? Read some of our other English Help posts here.