Say or Tell?

These two ‘little’ verbs cause so much confusion to English Language learners. I had been thinking for a while to write a post to provide some clarity for learners until lo and behold, the excellent Vicki Hollett and her husband, Jay produced a video precisely on this subject.

I had the privilege of meeting Vicki at the IATEFL conference in Manchester having followed her for over a year before then (on social media, not in person!).
Vicki and Jay’s company Simply English Videos is a wonderfully innovative and excellent language resource. They create engaging and fun videos to teach vocabulary, idioms, grammar and much more. I recommend that you take a look at their You Tube Channel and subscribe to get their latest videos. You’ll love them.

As I watched the video I knew  I had to share it with you, my readers. The grammar points are clearly explained by Vicki. However, I thought I would summarise the content so that you have the main points ready to hand. I have added some more examples to each point.

Step One: Watch the video

Step Two: Now let’s recap

1. Say and Tell have no difference in meaning in this context except for the structure of the sentence.

You SAY something 
“He said that he would be back at 3pm”.

You TELL someone something
“He told me that he would be back at 3pm”.


2. Use SAY when you’re quoting someone or with ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ and ‘hi’.

“Johnny, say thank you to the lady for giving you the ice cream”.

Say hi to Tom when you see him later”.

“Silvia says sorry for not getting back to you earlier. She has been so busy with work”


Use TELL when giving/asking for information or asking for instructions

“Could you tell me the time?” ( information)

“Can you tell me the quickest way to the railway station?” (instructions)

“Could you tell me when the next sales meeting will be?” (information)

“Hold on, I need to tell you something (information)

“Can you tell me how to work this computer?” (instructions)


4. We use TELL when we recognise signs

A: “You’ve been in the sun, haven’t you?
B:  How did you know?
A:  I can tell by your tan.

A: You’re from the UK, aren’t you?
B: How can you tell?
A: I can tell by your accent.

A: How can you tell you’re in love?
B: Mmm, let me think about that.


5. TELLSpecial Expressions
We normally tell someone something. However, there are special expressions where we don’t have to tell someone. Here they are:

a. Tell a story or tell a joke  
You can tell a story (or you can tell me a story)

“I love telling jokes with my friends”
“Tell me a story”
“My family always tell stories around dinner table”. 

b. Tell the truth or a lie
You can tell the truth and the whole truth (or you can tell me the truth and the whole truth)

“He has told so many lies in his career”
“I want you to tell me the truth for once”.

c. Tell Secrets
You can tell someone a secret or you can tell secrets

“He loves telling secrets”
“Can I tell you secret?

d. Tell the difference or tell things apart
You can tell someone the difference but you cannot tell someone things apart

“Can you tell me the difference between these two shirts?”
“Can you tell the difference between these two shirts?”
“I can’t tell the twins apart


I hope that between Vicki’s video and my post, how to use say or tell is clearer.

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Ciao for now