Lawless English

Say vs Tell

Say vs tell
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Confusing English Verbs

English has two verbs, “to say” and “to tell,” that are both equivalent to a single verb in some languages*, which makes it difficult for speakers of those languages to know which one to use in any given situation. Understanding the difference in meaning is key to knowing which verb you need.

To say

To say means to speak, to express something, to utter words, to create meaning out of sounds. This verb focuses on the person speaking and the words they are using. It may be used with or without a direct object. The past tense is irregular: said.

For example…

Do you have anything to say?

I need to say something.

They want me to say she’s right.

He says everything will be ok.

We are only saying what everyone is thinking.

Don’t say it if it’s not true.

Be quiet! Don’t say anything.

What are you saying?

Expressions with say

to have one’s say to express one’s opinion / feelings
let’s say … let’s assume / suppose …
… say … approximately
to say nothing of not to mention, and also
to say uncle to give up, admit defeat
that is to say in other words

To tell

To tell means to express something with focus on the listener. It always has an indirect object and often a direct object as well. The past tense is irregular: told.

For example…

Do you have anything to tell me?

I need to tell you something.

They want me to tell her she’s right.

He tells me everything will be ok.

We are telling you what everyone else thinks.

Tell us the truth.

Be quiet! You have nothing useful to tell me.

What aren’t you telling me?

Expressions with tell

A little birdie told me I heard a rumor
to have a tell (poker) to give away one’s good/bad hand
to hear tell of to hear rumors about
I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth,
and nothing but the truth
(court) witness oath before giving testimony
… I tell you I’m serious, this is the truth
to kiss and tell to talk to people about a romantic interlude
to tell on someone to inform / snitch about another’s misdeeds

* How to say “to say / to tell” in …

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