To “say” or to “tell”

A usage point

by | Aug 9, 2019 | Vocabulary

Differences between the verbs ‘say’ and ‘tell’ and how to avoid some common mistakes.

‘She said him’ or ‘She told him’? If you cannot decide, you’re not alone. Many English learners confuse the two verbs and this has become a very common mistake. Listen to this 2-minute podcast to learn the differences between ‘say’ and ‘tell’

Today’s topic is: to say? Or to tell?

Listen carefully to these examples of say and tell. Can you decide how they’re different?

  • • I’d like to say a few words.
  • • I’ll tell you all about my trip when I come back.
  • • He said that the company had improved its standards.
  • • She told us funny stories about her sister.
  • • I said goodbye to her.


First, let’s talk about tell. We generally use tell to give instructionsinformation, orders or advice. For example:

  • • He told me that he would arrive at 2 pm.
  • • The teacher told her, “Close the door!”
  • • My mother told me about the drug’s side effects.

Remember that “tell to sb” would be wrong. You must always say “tell sb”. So, the structure would be: “tell sb to do sth” or “tell sb not to do sth”.


Now listen to these examples of say:

  • • Anthony says you have a new job.
  • • He said that he had to leave.
  • • What did you say to her?

Say is generally not followed by a person. Here are some common structures with say:

say sth”, “say that”, “say sth to sb”, “say to sb”.



To help you remember the main difference between say and tell, keep these two phrases in mind:

You say sth, but you tell sb sth.


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To "say" or to "tell"?

About the Author

About the Author

CEO and Co-founder of Juice Academy

Mehdi Safavi is a Cambridge certified English teacher (CELTA Grade A), IDP-trained IELTS expert, Sussex Downs College TESOL with 17+ years of teaching & teacher training experience. More about him →


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