When to Use the Verbs Say or Tell (Said vs Told)

Unsure about when to use the verbs Say or Tell, Said or Told? Let us tell you!

For some, knowing when to use the verbs say or tell can be hard to remember. In fact, the words tell and say are often interchanged by English learners. ESL learners often make the mistake of saying things like, “He said me to come today,” or “He say me go there, so I did.” These are examples of incorrect usage.

It is easier to understand when to use say or tell if we can distinguish small but important differences between the two verbs. Then we can easily use the proper verbs in our sentences.

Very, very basically, tell and say have the same meaning, in the sense that both are describing a form of verbal communication from one person to another person or group.

The differences?

Tell requires a direct object (I told him to do it; he told me to come over).

Say never takes an object (He said, “do it.”) It’s usually reporting which words a person used during a conversation.

Let’s see some examples of when to use the verbs say or tell:

TELL (told)

Telling someone something; Usually used when giving information and instructions.

1.Transfer information.

2.To say something can not be done. (+ To infinitive)

3.To tell a story

Tell me about your job.
(+ Two objects) Can you tell me the way to the market?
[FORMAL] He told us of his different stories.
[+ (That)] Did you tell anyone (that) you were going to see her?
[+ Speech] “I love you,” she told him.
[+ To infinitive] I told her to bring it.

SAY (said)  

 Pronunciation of words or voices; To express a thought, idea or suggestion, to express a truth or instruction.

Kids find it difficult to say long sentences.
[+ Speech] “I’m going to concert tonight,” she said.
She said hello to all friends .
[+ (That)] The doctors say (that) will take him a few weeks to recover.
The offer was so bad that I could not say yes.

Another useful article: When to use A, An, or The

Here’s a nice long example sentence to show you when to use the verbs say or tell:

I told him exactly what to say at the meeting and I told him not to mess it up by saying the wrong things, but later, when he told me what he’d said at the meeting, I had to tell him, “Sorry, but that’s not what I said to say. You said the wrong things and I told you not to!” He said he was sorry and I told him it was okay.

Maybe that last sentence is too confusing, eh? Let’s get back to a few simple examples of when to use the verbs say or tell:

I told you yesterday that I was going to the movies tonight.

You told him to come at 8:00?

She told us she’d bring a pie.

Mike said, “Do me a favor,” and Bill said, “No.”

I said to the guy, “Hey, do I look rich?” and he told me to I did.

She always said he’d be late for his own funeral…

We told them to register before the deadline, and they said they would, but they forgot.

If I said you were beautiful, would you tell me to get lost?

How about a few examples in past tense?

She had told me she could make it.

He said he’d come, but I told him not to.

They told the agent they wanted the house, and he said it wasn’t for sale. 

Present tense?

“What are you saying?” “I’m saying, ‘let’s go!'” 

I am telling you to hurry up. 

Don’t tell me what to do. 

Future tense?

I’ll tell him when I see him.

I know what she’ll say if I tell her not to buy that dress.

If you say that one more time, I will tell you to leave!


We hope this article helps explain the differences of when to use the verbs say or tell. Let us know, and don’t forget to sign up to our email list for updates! You can also check us out on Facebook and YouTube!

when to use the verbs say or tell
Busra Bayram

When to use the verbs say or tell. Copyright 2017, Mad English Lab

Busra Bayram

Busra Bayram is the co-founder of and social media model for Mad English Lab.

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