The verbs "say" and "tell" are often confused by second language learners and non-native speakers of English. If you have this same trouble, don't worry. This article will help to clear up any confusion you might have about when and how to use these two verbs. Before that, let's take a look at the following two conversations between Persons A and B, and between Persons B and C. The verbs "say" and "tell" are constantly being interchanged during both of these conversations. While reading the following conversations, decide if the usage of these two verbs is obvious to you or not.
CONVERSATION 1: (Persons A (man) and B (woman) are talking in the office.)
B: Of course! What do you want to tell me?
A: I want to tell you that I need to say something important to our boss.
B: What do you need to say?
A : I can't tell you right now.
B: Will you tell me later?
A: I might tell you later, but I'm not making any promises.
B: Okay, but I hope you aren't going to say anything about what happened yesterday.
A: No, I'm not going to say anything about that.
B: Really? I hope not.
B: Can't you tell me a little bit about what it is you want to say to him?
A: No, I'm sorry, but I shouldn't tell you now.
B: Okay, well I hope you tell me about it later.
A: Remember that you promised me that you won't say anything about this to anyone else.
B: I promise. My lips are sealed. I won't say anything to anyone. Don't worry!
A: Thanks! I might tell you about it later. I got to go now.
B: Okay, see you later. Good luck with whatever it is you're going to say to the boss.
(Person A (man) leaves the room, and Person C (man) approaches Person B (woman).)
C Hi! What was that all about? What was "A" saying to you?
B: Sorry, but I can't tell you.
C: Come on! Tell me! Please?
B: I promised "A" that I wouldn't say anything to anyone.
C: You know that I'm good at keeping secrets. Come on! Just come out and say it.
B: No! I can't tell you now. Maybe later.
C: It must really be important if you can't say anything about it to anyone, not even me.
B: Forget about it! Don't ask me to say anything more about this.
C: Okay, sorry. Maybe you will tell me something later.
If you found this exercise to be a little confusing, and didn't have a clear idea about using the two verbs "say" and "tell" in these two conversations, then do the following. Re-read the two conversations above, but replace "say" with "tell", and vice versa. Determine if the use of these two verbs makes sense to you now. Afterward, you will find out why you can't replace "say" for "tell" and "tell" for "say" in each line of the two conversations above.
Now let's clear up the confusion. In order to distinguish a clear difference between the verbs "say" and "tell", let's explore the following aspects about each of these two verbs: (1) the meaning; (2) the common use; (3) a grammatical explanation; and (4) the essence or fundamental nature of the word.
Let's begin with the meaning of these two verbs. The verb "say" means to utter or vocalize words. What is being spoken is more important in this case than who is receiving the articulated statement. For example, in the first conversation above, Person B makes the following pronouncement to Person A. He states, "I hope you aren't going to say anything about what happened yesterday". In this case, the importance of this communication is to declare that something isn't stated, and not to identify who will not receive this declaration. In other words, Person B wants to make sure that Person A doesn't mention anything to their boss about what happened yesterday. Therefore, she emphasizes what shouldn't be "said" (or uttered), and doesn't give importance to who shouldn't receive this utterance; which in this case, is the boss. Thus, the information itself is more important than who receives it.
The contrary is true for the verb "tell". In this case, it's just the opposite. The person who receives the information is more important than the information itself. An example of this can be found in the second conversation when Person C asks Person B to reveal what Person A's conversation was all about. Person B replies to Person C, "Sorry, but I can't tell you". What's more important here is not the information that was stated, rather "who" cannot be told about this information. In this case, Person B is emphasizing that "Person C" is the one who cannot be told about the first conversation.
Next, let's turn our attention to the common use of the two verbs "say" and "tell". The word "say" is usually used in reported speech when someone wants to report what someone else has uttered. For example, imagine that you want to repeat your friend's words "I will call you later" to your sister during a conversation with her. You inform your sister of the following. My friend said, "I will call you later". Reported speech is usually highlighted with an opening and closing quote mark when it's in written form. This format is used to emphasize the wording of the reported speech, and highlight "what" is being conveyed.
The verb "tell" doesn't have any special usage like that of the verb "say". Its use is not restricted to "what" is being uttered, rather "to whom" it is being uttered. In the example in the above paragraph, you could have stated the following to your sister, "my friend told me that he will call me later". Here the emphasis is placed on "who" receives this message, and in this case the "who" is "me".
Thirdly, there is a grammatical explanation about when to use "say", and when to use "tell". Both of these verbs mean to verbally communicate with another person, but they are used differently. One of the easiest ways to remember the difference between them is to think of the following. You "say" something (to someone), and you "tell someone something. The difference is the usage of a personal object (e.g., someone, somebody, anyone, anybody, it, him, her, them). The verb "tell" is almost always followed by a personal object which identifies to whom you are speaking. For example, in the following statement "I can't tell you right now, the personal object "you" is followed by the verb "tell". You cannot make this statement without the personal object. In other words, it's impossible to remark "I can't tell right now". You always need the personal object with the verb "tell".
However, the contrary is true for the verb "say"; and, in this case, the personal object is not used unless you want to emphasize "who" is receiving the utterance. For example, in the statement "I won't say anything", it is not necessary to include a personal object because it is automatically assumed that someone is the recipient of this action. However, if you want to emphasize "who" the receiver is, then you can include a personal object preceded by the word "to". In this case, the above example might be "I won't say anything to anyone". The personal object "anyone" is used to make an emphasis about "who" is receiving the action.
Lastly, but of much interest, is the essence or fundamental nature of the words "say" and "tell". This is a very interesting aspect about how these two verbs function. With the verb "say", think of the communication as going one way. The words that you utter when you "say" something, go in one direction.
If you are in a conversation with another person, they may or may not respond to your words. Even more, the words that are spoken may be heard by other people around you. They are only recipients of the sound of the words, and are not active participants in a mutual conversation. The importance of this type of communication is the utterance of the words that are being stated, and not the person uttering them, nor the other person who receives them.
In the case of the verb "tell", the communication is two-directional. That means that both people involved in a conversation are actively participating by listening and speaking to each other. The person who is listening to the words of their conversation partner is paying attention to what is being uttered, and generally responds back with their own words. The conversation partner, in turn, will follow the same procedure. Therefore, the conversation is continuous and goes back and forth between them.
To sum up, the meanings of the two verbs "say" and "tell" are similar, but they are not perfect synonyms of one another. The common usage of "say" in reported speech distinguishes one main difference between these two verbs. The grammatical explanation that discriminates between them is identified by the required usage of a personal object for the word "tell", but an optional usage for the word "say". An intuitive motive can also be used to make a distinction between the one-way direction of communication that is implied when you "say something (to someone)" versus the two-way communication that is inferred when you "tell someone something".