Say or Tell: What's the Difference?

Pop quiz! What do you think is the difference between the following questions?

  • Can you tell me your name?
  • Can you say your name for me?

Why does one sentence use "tell" and the other "say"? Do they mean different things?

Read to the end to find out. Along the way, we promise you'll learn all the differences between "say" and "tell" you need to know to use them correctly in English conversations!

1. “Say Words” vs. “Tell Information”

While they seem similar, "say" and "tell" actually mean different things. "Say" means "to express a thought in words" while "tell" means "to inform."

In other words, "say" focuses on the words people use to express themselves. For example, here are some sentences which all focus on words.

  • How do you say this word in English?
  • English-speakers say "cheese" when they smile for photos.
  • Could you say that again, please?

The first sentence asks for a word, the second talks about a word, and the third one asks someone to repeat some words. Because the focus of all these sentences is on words, we can only use "say."

On the other hand, "tell" focuses on the information people give each other when they talk. That's why English speakers use "tell" to ask for directions. For example, you would hear someone say, "Could you tell me how to get to Big Ben?" but not "Could you say how to get to Big Ben?"

Here are some more sentences which focus on information and can only use "tell."

  • He told me his phone number, and I wrote it down.
  • Tell us why you're interested in this job.
  • Please tell me how I can improve my English.

In many cases, both "tell" and "say" can be used. For example, both of these sentences are natural:

  • My tutor told me that I speak English well.
  • My tutor said that I speak English well.

They just mean slightly different things. The "say" version sounds like you're repeating your tutor's words while the "tell" version focuses more on the fact that your tutor gave you some information.

2. “Say Something” vs. “Tell Someone Something”

Sentences with "tell" and "say" are about people talking to one another, so it makes sense that they need to say who the speaker and what was their message was. However, sentences with "tell" must also say who the listener was.

For example, here are some sentences that use "tell." Notice how they all mention the listener.

  • She told the man her name.
  • Mary tells her mom she loves her every day.
  • My manager told me that I need to improve my English to get promoted.

Sentences with "say" can mention the listener too, but that is optional. So if mentioning the listener doesn't make sense, just use "say."

  • The news said that it's going to rain today. [News reports provide information, but because they don't talk to specific listeners, it doesn't make sense to use "tell."]
  • A wise person once said, "Be the change you want to see." [It doesn't matter who was listening. It's the message that matters.]

3. “Tell Someone” vs. “Say to Someone”

When you use "say," remember that you need to use the preposition of direction "to" if you want to mention the listener.

  • Tom said "Hi" to Meg. [Tom said "Hi" Meg.]
  • My manager said to me, "You need to improve your English to get a promotion." [My manager said me ... .]

On the other hand, don't use "to" when you use "tell."

  • Raj told Tom he was sorry. [Raj told to Tom ...]
  • Did I tell you what happened? [Did I tell to you ...]
  • I told my manager that I would take online English classes. [I told to my manager ... .]

4. “Say” vs. “Tell” in Reported Speech

"Say" can be used in both direct and indirect reported speech while "tell" is normally only used in indirect reported speech.

Direct Reported Speech

  • Raj said "I'm sorry" to Tom.
  • Mary said "I love you" to her mom.
  • Jim said "I'll be late."

Indirect Reported Speech

  • Raj said that he's sorry.
    Raj told Tom that he's sorry.
  • Mary said that she loves her mom.
    Mary told her mom that she loves her.
  • Jim said he would be late.
    Jim told me he would be late.

Remember that the basic meaning of "say" is "express thoughts in words" while the basic meaning of "tell" is "inform." As a result, English speakers are more likely to use "say" to quote someone and "tell" to paraphrase a message.

This difference has also been shown in studies. For example, a study of spoken American English found that in cases of direct reported speech, "say" was used 79-87% of the time while "tell" was only used 1-3% of the time. Similarly, a British English study found that "tell" was around 10 times more likely to be used for indirect reported speech than for direct reported speech.

5. “Tell” and “Say” Have Other Meanings

Finally, "tell" and "say" actually have other meanings besides "express a word in thoughts" and "inform." We'll cover the main meanings that are related to talking and explain how "tell" and "say" aren't interchangeable in these cases.

“Say” Also Means “Think”

"Say" also means "think." This is a meaning that "tell" does not have. As a result, only "say" can be used in sentences like these:

  • My dad thinks I should find a new job. What do you say? [= What do you think?]
  • I'd say [= I think] there are about 500 people in this room right now.

So if someone says to you, "What does Sally say about the new restaurant?" they're not really asking for the words that came out of Sally's mouth. They want to know what Sally thinks about the restaurant.

“Tell” Also Means “Order” or “Instruct”

"Tell" also means "to order or instruct (someone to do something)": e.g. "You're not my boss! You can't tell me what to do!"

When "tell" is used in this sense, it's usually followed by a verb in the infinitive ("to") form.

  • Tell Jim to go away. [= Order Jim to go away.]
  • The English teacher told his students to repeat after him. [= The English teacher instructed his students ...]

Notice how "tell" in these sentences doesn't mean "inform." For example, the first sentence isn't informing Jim of a fact. It's asking Jim to go away.

“Tell” Also Means “Tell (a Story)”

"Tell" is also used in the phrase "tell a story." You might also know that "tell" is related to the word "tale," which is a type of story. In fact, this is one of the oldest meanings of "tell." As linguist Albert H. Marckwardt explains:

The earliest recorded meaning of tellan in Old English was 'to recount', 'to enumerate', or 'to relate'. When so used, it referred to an extended narrative or to a series of associated facts.

This is why English speakers say "tell a story" and not "say a story." The same goes for phrases like "tell a joke," "tell the truth," and "tell a secret."

  • Grandpa used to tell us stories every time we visited. [Grandpa used to say stories ... .]
  • I have some good news to tell you: I got a job! [I have some good news to say ... .]

Be careful when using "tell" in this sense, because it is grammatically different from the other senses of "tell." The listener can be omitted and the preposition "to" is sometimes used.

  • I told my sister a joke, but she didn't laugh. I need to get better at telling jokes. [No listener in the 2nd sentence.]
  • Amy told her Ben all her secrets. Ben told her secrets to everyone else in class. ["To" used in second sentence.]

Answers to the Pop Quiz

Did you figure out the difference between these two sentences?

  • Can you tell me your name?
  • Can you say your name for me?

English speakers would say "Could you tell me your name?" when they don't know someone's name and need to be informed of it. On the other hand, they would say "Could you say your name for me?" when they know the name but want to hear it pronounced.

If you'd like more practice with "say" and "tell" or want to improve your speaking skills in general, book an online English lesson with an Engoo tutor! We've helped hundreds of thousands of students reach their English learning goals and we're sure we can help you too. Learn more about us here.