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  ENGLISH GRAMMAR for ESL learners  


When do we use 'say' and when do we use 'tell'?

SAY and TELL are often confused or misused.
You SAY something to someone : Alex said hello to everyone.
You TELL someone something:    Jack told Jill he was tired.

  • Say is used to report someone's words.
    • She said "I'm thirsty. I'd like a glass of water."
    • She said (that) she was thirsty and would like a glass of water.
    • He said he would call to see his parents on his way home.

  • Say is followed by 'to' before the object :
    • Did she actually say that to you?
    • Please say a few words to the pupils before you leave.
    • He didn't say anything to his parents about his plans.
    • Say hello to your parents for me.
    • He was asked to say a few words to the participants.

  • Say is used to ask about languages :
    • Do you know how to say 'water' in Spanish?
    • How do you say "thank you" in Chinese?

  • We say :
    'hello', 'goodbye', 'please', 'thank you', 'yes', 'no', 'congratulations', 'good luck', 'sorry', 'excuse me', 'Merry Christmas', 'Happy New Year', 'Happy Birthday',  'see you soon' ...
  •  Tell is used to inform or instruct :
    • Could you tell me the way to the station please?
    • Tell the children to go to bed!
    • Don't tell a lie. Tell me the truth!

  • Tell is followed directly by the object (no 'to'):
    • Did she tell you her name?
    • I'm sure Anna will tell us all the latest news.
    • The teacher told the children to stop making noise.

  • Tell is used for narration:
    • Tom has always been very good at telling stories.
    • I want you to tell me all about your trip.
    • Tell me how you met your husband/wife.

  • We tell :
    the time, our name, how to do something, the truth, a lie, a secret, a story, a joke, the difference between two things, (someone) how to do something, someone's fortune, the way to the station, where something is ...

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Please note that British English spelling is used on this website.

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