"Say" vs. "Tell": Learn how to use them, and avoid this common mistake (Audio reading included)
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was an English teacher who was explaining the finer points of reported speech. The teacher's students listened and understood the rules of backshifting tenses and using "if" to introduce a "yes" or "no" question. However, some of them were still unclear on when to use "He said" and when to use "He told."
If you are reading this article, you probably have similar questions. So, allow me to make it simple from the very beginning.
In reported speech, TELL is a transitive verb. This means it requires an object. For example, "He told me that he was going to arrive early."
In reported speech, SAY is an intransitive verb. This means it does NOT require an object. To repeat the example above with "say," you would say "He said that he was going to arrive early" or "He said he was going to arrive early."
This does not tell the whole story of "say" and "tell," but it is a good starting point, and it allows us to introduce one of the most common reported speech mistakes. That is: "He said me." This is an incorrect form. If you ever feel like saying "You said me," "He said me," "She said me," "They said me," try to stop yourself and remember the rules above. In these cases, you should be saying "You told me," "He told me," "She told me," or "They told me."
If you want to report with the verb "say" instead, say "You said," "He said," "She said," or "They said" followed by a that clause, or an imperative that starts with to. Also, remember that actually saying "that" in a that clause is optional. This is the case for both "say" and "tell." Note the examples:
"You said it would be easy."
"You said that it would be easy."
"You told me it would be easy."
"You told me that it would be easy."
Now, let's look at some examples that use a mix of "say" and "tell."
"Mike said the show started at 9."
"My mom told me to clean my room."
"He didn't tell me anything."
"You said that you would help me."
"She said to bring your own drinks."
"What did he tell you?"
"What did he say to you?"
"My boss told me to call the supplier in the morning."
"Julia said she had never been there before."
"Zack said to leave the door unlocked because he was going to be back in 5 minutes."
"He told us to pay attention."
Both "say" and "tell" can also be followed by a wh- question clause. This is usually more common and comfortable with "tell" than "say." Note the possible examples:
"Did she say when the movie will start?"
"He always told them what to do."
"The boss said where to go." (More common: "The boss told us where to go.")
"She didn't tell us who was chosen for the position."
"I need you to tell me which one I should pick."
To review the most important point, as you can see, when you use "tell," you need to mention the person the information was for. When you use "say," you just need to report what was said. If you really want to mention the person who received the information with "say," you can say "to" + the person who received the information. For instance, "He said that to me" or "He said to me that he would take the job." I would still stick with "He told me" in most of these cases, however.
You can also refer to or ask about what a person said. For example, you can say, "That's not what you said," or "That's not what you told me." Here are some other relevant examples:
"I didn't say that."
"I didn't tell you that."
"Who said that?"
"Who told you that?"
"What did you say?"
"What did you tell him?"
"When did I say that?"
"When did I tell you that?"
Finally, remember that you only use "tell" when the information is directly given from one person to another person or group of people. If you are reporting what was said in an article, in a video, or a news report, for instance, use "say."
"The president said the economy would improve."
"The article said there were two major problems with the government's proposal."
"Someone on the radio said that it was supposed to rain all day yesterday."
Practice: Imagine that I said, "I have a car." Report this information back to me. What did I say? What did I tell you? Use both forms. Check the answer at the bottom of this article.
Of course, "say" and "tell" are not only used in reported speech. Here are some other common uses of these verbs.
You can tell a story or a tale. For instance, "My uncle used to tell us stories about his life in the army."
You can tell a joke. For instance, "My sister told me a really funny joke today."
You can tell a secret. For instance, "It's a secret. Don't tell anyone," or "She told me a secret."
You can tell the truth or tell a lie. For instance, "He likes to tell lies" or "It's important to tell the truth."
In all of these cases, the information is being directly transmitted to someone.
Something can be easy or difficult to say. For example, "It's difficult to say what time we'll arrive."
Your expression can say a lot to others. For example, "His face said it all."
An artist can express their thoughts or feelings through their work. For example, "What do you think this painting is trying to say?" or "What does this movie say about society?" In these cases, you can also say "What do you think this painting is trying to tell us" and "What does this movie tell us about society?"
An incident can say much or little about someone. For example, "Her decision said a lot about the type of person she is" or "You're overreacting. This minor incident says very little about Marcus as a person."
You can introduce a hypothetical situation with "Let's say." For example, "Let's say you lost your job tomorrow. What would you do?"
As you can see, there are many ways to use "say" and "tell." If you would like more examples, I recommend reading the Oxford Learner's Dictionary entries on "say" and "tell."
Finally, if you found this article useful and you would like to support my work while improving your English, consider purchasing a PDF, e-book, or physical copy of one of my books. Thank you. Until next time, I wish you success in your studies.
You said (that) you had a car.
You told me (that) you had a car.
You said (that) you have a car. (because it's still true)
You told me (that) you have a car.