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Tell vs. Say: Are You Using The Right Word?

This is our blog’s latest in a series of posts about words that have similar… but not quite the same meanings. Last time, we looked at the subtle differences in the prepositions “among” and “between”. Today, we’re moving on from prepositions to look at two verbs: “tell,” and “say.”

These two words are very similar. So similar that I often see English language learners use both verbs in all of the same ways. Many of my students are surprised when I tell them that the two words should not be used in the same way, and that they should say these words more carefully when they speak. If you’re also surprised by that advice, look carefully at the previous sentence. Can you spot the difference in how I used “tell” and “say”? Can you guess the grammar rule? Give yourself a moment to guess, then look below to see if you guessed correctly.

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  • Rule 1: When “tell” has a direct object, the direct object should be a person, a group of people, or a story

    Examples: I told him to meet me here at 5 o’clock. The big screen in the airport tells the schedule of every flight. My dad tells such great bedtime stories—he doesn’t even need to read them from a book! The manager told all of the new work regulations to the employees.Basically, if you “tell” something, you are giving information to someone. “Telling” always involves the transmission of information to a thinking audience that receives it. Because of this, the only time that the direct object of “tell” is not a person is when the direct object of “tell” is a complicated piece of information, such as a story, or a detailed set of instructions. Detailed pieces of information almost always have an audience—stories, instructions, etc… are meant to be understood by other people. Smaller words or ideas do not necessarily have an audience or communicate a clear, complete message.
  • Rule 2: When “say” has a direct object, the direct object must be information.Rule 2a: If the object of “say” is information communicated to an audience, it must be simple information.

Examples: The teacher said the word, and the students spelled the word on the     exam sheet. She said it was a bad idea. He said the name of his favorite television

  • Rule 2b: If the object of “say” is information that is not communicated to anyone, the information can be complicated or simple.

Examples: No one knows what is said in her diary, because she doesn’t show her  diary to anyone. The tour guide couldn’t understand if the tourist had said “yes”     or “no,” because the tourist was speaking in a foreign language.

  • Rule 3: If “tell” or “say” don’t have a direct object, a direct object should be implied.

Examples: What bedtime story will mom tell tonight? I wanted to know what       they were thinking, but they didn’t say.

In the example sentences above, the nouns mentioned at the beginning of the sentence are implied to be the direct objects of the verbs “tell” and “say.” It’s easy to infer that mom will tell a bedtime story, and it’s clear that “they” didn’t say whatever they were thinking.

There can be even simpler sentences where the noun/object isn’t said at all, but is still implied. “He didn’t tell” implies that someone didn’t tell a person something, or didn’t give out a complicated piece of information. “She didn’t say” suggests that a word, fact, or some other piece of information is not being said.

In this way, “tell” and “say” are never truly intransitive—in contrast to transitive verbs such as “run” and “sleep,” “tell” and “say” must always have an object, whether that object is stated or unstated.

A “gray area” in the rules

There is a “gray area” between rules 1 and 2a above. By this I mean that there are times when you could follow one rule or the other. Sometimes it can be hard to say whether a piece of information is complicated enough that it should be “told” and not “said.” For instance, how complicated is the flight information on an airport display? You could argue that the big neon signs in airports tell when the flights depart, or that they say when the flights depart.

 

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