Ask the Editor
Jane Mairs, Director of English language Learning Publishing
What's the difference between say and tell?
Monday August 3rd 2015
What's the difference between say and tell?

Say and tell are both used to report ideas or information that was expressed in spoken language. The most important difference between them is that with say, you don’t need to mention who the ideas or information were shared with, but with tell, you do. For example, it’s correct to say, “Amy said that she likes coffee,” but it’s not correct to say, “Amy told that she likes coffee.” Instead you must say, “Amy told me/Joe/someone, etc., that she likes coffee.”

Another important difference between say and tell is that if a sentence with say identifies the person who was spoken to, you must use say to + the person. However, tell to is incorrect. Here are two sentences with the same meaning that illustrate this difference:

  1.    That’s what Jessie said to me. (not …Jessie said me)
  2.    That’s what Jessie told me. (not …Jessie told to me)

Another difference between say and tell is that tell should not be used to repeat the exact words that someone else said, also known as "direct speech," unless the words give instructions or report information. This rule does not apply to say. Here are two sentences that illustrate this difference:

  1.    Suzi said, “Okay, let’s eat!” (not Suzi told us, “.....”)
  2.    Suzi told us, “Come eat!” (Come eat is an instruction.)

I find this a hard rule to apply, and I’m not sure that native speakers always follow it.  So if you find this rule confusing, I suggest that you simply don't use tell to repeat direct speech. In the sentence below, for example, you could use any of the verbs shown, and more.

5. She looked up and said/ whispered/ added/ replied/ muttered, "Goodnight."

 I hope this helps!