Say vs. Tell

“When you have something good to say, say it. When you have something ill to say, say something else.” 

Christian D. Larson, an American New Thought leader and teacher

GRAMMAR OF “SAY”

“Say” cannot have a person as direct object. We must use “to” followed by the person:

Say it again please

He said goodbye to his friend.

“Say” comes before or after direct speech:

She said, “This house is huge!”

“I’m serious,” she said.

We use “say (that)” before reported speech:

He said (that) he would send the letter.

GRAMMAR OF “TELL”

We tell somebody facts, opinions and information:

Mary told us the truth.

I’ve never told you lies.

I like telling stories.

We tell somebody about something (but say something to somebody):

Jack told us about his adventures.

Please tell me about your family.

We can also tell somebody to do something and that something happened, happens etc.:

The boss told me to rewrite the report.

She told me that she would call (but She said that she would call).

Tell + somebody + question word/phrase + noun phrase/to-infinitive:

Tell me what you need.

Tell him how you were waiting for him.

Tell them who the boss is.

Tell me what to do.

COMMON PHRASES WITH “SAY”

  • People say that he likes Mary ( = there are rumors that he likes Mary).
  • Let’s meet on, let’s say / say, Saturday (let’s say/say = for example).
  • (Let’s) say the movie lasts 90 minutes, then I’d better start making mashed potatoes by 6 p.m ((let’s) say = let’s suppose).
  • I have something to say ( = there is something that I want to say).
  •  Well, let’s just say there are some problems ( = let me put it this way).
  • He is absent-minded, but having said that ( = despite this fact), he always remembers to lock the door.
  • His family, that is to say ( = namely) his parents, will spend some time with us.

COMMON PHRASES WITH “TELL”

  • To tell you the truth ( = the truth is), I don’t know which sentence is correct.
  • I’m telling you / I tell you / I can tell you ( = believe me), he’s the best person I have ever known.
  • He is a bastard! – I told you so / Told you! ( = I warned you).
  • This job is driving me crazy! – Tell me about it! ( = I feel the same, I know what you mean).
  • I’ll tell you what ( = I have a plan to suggest) – we’ll go there by car.
  • I can tell a mile off that he’s a good guy ( = it’s very easy to notice, it’s clear to see that…).
  • I told you the reason why I was there ( = I told you why…).