Guest Articles >> Creativity

When Do We ‘Say’ and When Do We ‘Tell’?

By Mark Doyle

Do we ‘say the truth’ or do we ‘tell’ the truth’?

Do we ‘say’ the hour’ or do we ‘tell’ the hour?

According to the dictionary, both terms have many definitions and idiomatic uses; however, the most frequent meaning for both is “to express in words.”

Both verbs, say and tell, come from old English verbs:

Say comes from secgan, which means “to utter, say”, and tell comes from tellan, which means “to reckon, calculate, consider, account”.  

Among all the similarities, these two words have a difference:

Tell refers more to “recount” or “narrate”.

language Say refers more to “speak”.

The use of these verbs is highly idiomatic; so, it is hard for ESL students to grasp. To make it easy for them to see the difference between say and tell, they have to know that tell takes an indirect object, while say doesn’t. In other words:

  •     You say something.
  •     You tell somebody something.

For example:

  •     The teacher says no and tells the students her decision.

Today, even objects are able to say something. For example, it is common to use the verb say like this:

  •     The clock says it is five thirty.
  •     The sign says to turn right.
  •     The TV says it is going to rain.

In the same way, there are several familiar idioms with the verb tell. For example:

  •     Tell a lie
  •     Tell a story
  •     Tell the truth
  •     Tell the future
  •     Tell somebody “hi”
  •     Tell things apart

There are also various expressions that employ tell, such as:

  •     “You can never tell” or “who can tell?”, means no one knows.
  •     “To tell tales”, means to lie.
  •     “Tell me about it!”, means “I know what you’re talking about.”


  •     “To Tell off”, means one of two things:

        When a group of people is assembled taking a vote, they “tell off” by shouting out a number in sequence.

        When you “tell someone off” what you do is you scold that person.   


  •     “Only time will tell”, means you will only know something after time has passed.
  •     “Tell you what”, means “this is what I think.”
  •     “My gut tells me”, means “my instincts tell me…”

This is a topic you should study thoroughly in your ESL classes, because mastering this is what truly makes you proficient in a foreign language and gives you the chance to fully experience the culture from the inside; otherwise you will always be identified as an outsider.

About the Author

Mark Doyle is a freelance writer in the Pacific Northwest who writes about many things, including esl schools.


The above guest post is published on this website based on the premise that it will be helpful and informative. The opinions made within it are those of the author and not of The links you may find within this post do not necessarily imply our recommendation or endorsement of the views expressed within them.

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