What is the difference between 'say' and 'tell'?

'Say' and 'tell' (meaning)

Say and tell are irregular reporting verbs. Both have fairly the same meaning and are used in reported speech.

'Say' means:

To utter words in order to communicate information, an opinion, or a feeling.

Example: "I am fed up with this life," he said

'Tell' means:

To communicate something to someone in spoken or written forms.

Example: I told her you passed the exam!

The difference between say and tell

Although the verbs 'tell' and 'say' share some meanings, they are used in different ways. Here are the main differences.

1. Say something vs tell someone something

Generally speaking, you can use say and tell as follows:

You say something BUT you tell someone something.

You say something. You tell someone something.
She said he was her best friend.
He said that he couldn't do the job by himself.
The speaker said that the world would be facing a financial crisis very soon.
She told me he was her best friend.
He told them the truth, but they didn't believe him.
The politician told the journalist that he would resign soon.

2. Say something to someone

  • Tell is used with an indirect object (e.g. tell me something, tell John something...)
  • 'Say' is usually used without an indirect object. In case we want to add an indirect object after say, we introduce it with ' to'


  • I told her the story
  • Why don't you tell him the truth?


  • John said to Sara that she was beautiful in her red dress.
  • "I've just finished doing my homework," he said to his Mom.

Some collocations with 'say' and 'tell'

Here are some collocations that are used with the verbs 'tell' and 'say'.

Say Tell
  • hi, hello, goodbye
  • yes, no
  • a word
  • something
  • a prayer
  • no more
  • sorry
  • thank you
  • the truth
  • a lie
  • a secret
  • a story
  • for sure
  • the time
  • one's name
  • someone the way
Say or Tell

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