why tell something to someone but not tell to someone?

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  • Jumbleofsocks
    7 April, 2015 at 21:57
    • Total posts: 1

    Hi. I’m a teacher. I got in a muddle today with this question, trying to teach my upper int student the more subltle differences between say and tell. The main difference is that you say to someone, but tell someone without to. (I say to her, she tells him etc). However, you can tell something to someone, as you can say something to someone. Can somebody please give me an easy way of explaining this or a rule? Is it to do with indirect objects perhaps?

    Fluent Center
    25 August, 2015 at 8:56
    • Total posts: 2

    ‘Tell’ would be more to instuct and inform.

    tell jack no! (instuct him)
    say to jack “no!” (only say the word)

    25 October, 2015 at 20:37
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    I rarely use the form say to someone. When I teach the forms, I focus on ‘say sth’. He said he’d be late. Whereas with tell, we need to have the object in the sentence- ‘tell sb sth’. He told us he’s be late. While we can use ‘say sth to someone’, most people wouldn’t. Hope this is helpful.

    19 October, 2016 at 11:59
    • Total posts: 1

    Yes, also this may be of help – I came across elsewhere on the site: http://www.eslbase.com/grammar/say-tell

    2 December, 2016 at 17:33
    • Total posts: 2

    Hi all,

    I loved this one! It’s a problem I’ve thought about for years but I never managed to figure out. I think maybe I have now.

    To start with some intuitions:

    1. Tell Jack something
    2. Tell to Jack something X
    3. Tell something to Jack
    4. Something was told to Jack *
    5. Say to Jack something *
    6. Say Jack something X
    7. Say something to Jack
    8. Something was said to Jack

    The examples with * are uncommon but not impossible. The examples with X, I think we can all agree, are not acceptable.

    In terms of function, tell/say is the[b] verbal process[/b], Jack/to Jack is the[b] receiver[/b] of the message, and “something” is the [b]verbiage[/b] (message).

    The result of this analysis shows:

    Word Order “tell” “say”

    Process + Receiver + Verbiage Yes No
    Process + (to) Receiver + Verbiage No *
    Process + Verbiage + (to) Receiver Yes Yes
    Verbiage + Process + (to) Receiver * Yes

    So we could hypothesize the “rule” that [u]ONLY when the word order is Process + Receiver + Verbiage[/u], [b]“say” must be followed by “to receiver” and “tell” must [u]not[/u] be followed by “to receiver.”[/b]

    I’d be very interested to hear what others think about this.


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