How to use Say & Tell

Learn about the difference between “say” and “tell” in English grammar. Clear and simple explanation of meaning and use, with examples.

Keith Taylor

Direct and indirect speech

  1. Say and tell are used in both direct and indirect speech.
    • Direct speech: I said “I’m hungry.” / I told him “I’m hungry.”
    • Indirect speech: I said that I was hungry / I told him that I was hungry.
  2. Say or tell cannot be used with indirect questions.
    • Jim told/said me if I wanted to play football – incorrect
    • Jim asked (me) if I wanted to play football – correct

Using objects

  1. With tell, we say who is told.
    • He told me that he liked playing tennis – correct
    • He said me that he liked playing tennis – incorrect
    • He told that he liked playing tennis – incorrect
  2. With say, if we want to use a personal object, to is used.
    • He said to them that he would be late.
  3. With other objects, tell is not normally used.
    • He said a strange thing – correct
    • He told a strange thing – unusual
  4. Tell + object + infinitive is used to give orders and instructions.
    • I told my son to stop shouting.
    • She told me to shut up.

Related grammar points

Reported Questions
Reported Speech
Reporting Verbs

Keith Taylor

Keith is the co-founder of Eslbase and School of TEFL. He's been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years, in Indonesia, Australia, Morocco, Spain, Italy, Poland, France and now in the UK.

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1 comment

  • Liz

    I use a whispering game:

    I whisper a sentence into the first student’s ear. This student reports to the next person whatever they heard who writes the sentence down and passes it on until it reaches the last person. You ask this student:

    What did I say?
    You said…

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