SAY or TELL?

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Say and tell are similar in that they both mean to talk or give information to someone verbally. However, there are differences in sentence construction and exact meaning.
Can you see the difference between these two sentences?

  • John told me you were sick last week.
  • John said you were sick last me.

Fill in the gaps below with either ‘tell’ or ‘say’ to show the first rule:

You ________ someone something but you _________ something to someone.

Show answers
You TELL someone something but you SAY something to someone.

Here some more examples:

Jane said she liked my new shirt > Jane told me that she liked my new shirt
His boss said David had to stay late > His boss told David that he had to stay late
She said she loved me! > She told me that she loved me!

Tip 1: Using ‘that’ with told

When using told, you do not have to say ‘that’. For example, both of these are correct:
Jane told me that she liked my new shirt > Jane told me she liked my new shirt
His boss told David that he had to stay late > His boss told David he had to stay late
She told me that she loved me! > She told me she loved me!


Tip 2: Direct and reported speech

When you are using reported speech, you can use say and tell.

For example:
He said he would be late home. CORRECT
He told me he would be late home. CORRECT
However, when you are using direct speech, tell is used only when giving a command or instruction.
‘Take seat over there’ he told me.  CORRECT
‘Take a seat over there’ he said. CORRECT
‘It’s good to see you’ he told me. INCORRECT
‘It’s good to see you’ he said. CORRECT

Tip 3: When the person being spoken to is not mentioned.
He said he needed another few days to finish the job. CORRECT
He told that he needed another few days to finish the job. INCORRECT
He told Bob that he needed another few days to finish the job. (We know the person being spoken to is Bob) CORRECT

Now practice!

Are the following sentences correct?
1. He told me I had to work on Saturday.

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This is correct. 2. Dave told that he would be here soon.
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This is not correct. It should be ‘Dave said that he would be here soon.’ or ‘Dave told me that he would be here soon.’ 3. ‘I think you should leave’ he told.
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This is not correct. This should be ‘said’. 4. ‘I’ll miss you’ his girlfriend said.
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This is correct. 5. Tell him to come in if he has time.
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This is correct. 6. Tell him to come in if he has time.
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This is correct. 7. She told to me to stay after class.
Show answer
This is not correct. After tell you don’t use ‘to’.

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