Difference Between Say and Tell

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: May 14, 2023


Difference Between Say and Tell

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Say and Tell are slightly different from each other in terms of their usage. The only similarity is that they belong to the Transitive Verbs category. The 'Verb' is a vast topic and one can get confused while trying to understand their appropriate use and distinctions. Verbs can be divided into the following categories: Regular, Irregular, Linking, Finite, Infinite, Transitive, and Intransitive. Let's understand Transitive verbs for a better insight into 'Say' and 'Tell'.

Where Intransitive verbs do not require a direct object to make sense, Transitive verbs need a direct object. A transitive verb is a verb that admits one or more objects in a sentence. Sentences containing transitive verbs need a noun that receives the purpose or action of the verb. For instance, in a sentence like ' I love chocolates' - in this sentence love is the verb and the direct object is 'chocolates'. 'Chocolates' is the object being loved by 'I'.

Transitive verbs were first recognized by stoics and the Peripatetic school. They discussed to the whole phrase comprising the transitive verb, not just the verb. Later, the Alexandrian school philologists worked on the advancement of the stoics.

There are three types of Transitive Verbs. 

  • Mono-transitive verbs – They are simple sentences with one verb and one direct object. For example- I eat potatoes. Here, 'eat' is the transitive verb and 'potatoes' is the direct object.
  • Di-transitive verbs – These need two objects- one direct and one indirect. Example- I am sending Jack a parcel. In this sentence, 'sending' is the transitive verb, 'Jack' is the indirect object, and 'parcel' is the direct object.
  • Complex Transitive verbs – These require a direct object plus another object or an object complement. For example- They called him intelligent. Now, in this sentence 'called' is the complex transitive verb, 'him' is the direct object, and 'intelligent' is the object complement.
  • Ambi-transitive verbs – This can be taken as an additional type of verb. These are the verbs which can be applied in an intransitive or transitive manner. For example- You eat. Here 'eat' is intransitive in form. In You eat apples, 'eat' here is a transitive verb. In these two sentences, 'eat' portrays the part of an intransitive and a transitive verb according to the object's presence.

Say and Tell also belong to the category of Transitive verbs. Let’s have a close look at them and their differences.

Say vs Tell

Say and Tell are similar meaning verbs but are slightly different when we look at their references and definitions closely. 'Say' refers to conveying something in words. Tell refers to informing or instructing something to someone. The sentences using Say may not require mentioning a particular person to whom words have been said. The sentences having ‘tell’ require a specific person to whom the information is being given. Some allocations used with 'Say' are - Hello, Hi, Goodbye, Yes, No, Sorry, Thank you, something, and so on. Some allocations used along with 'Tell' are - truth, lie, a story, a secret, the time, one's name, for sure, and so on.

The table given below describes the differences between Say and Tell in a detailed manner.

Difference Between Say and Tell in Tabular Form

Parameters of ComparisonSayTell
Meaning‘Say’ means to express something in words.‘Tell’ means to inform someone about something.
UsageIt is used when you want to convey something to the other person.It is used to inform or instruct information to a person.
Referring personSentences with ‘say’ may not require to mention a particular person to whom words are spoken.Sentences containing ‘tell’ require a specific person to whom the information is being given.
Preposition useThe past form of ‘say’ – said, requires the preposition ‘to’ along with it.Harry said to Katy.The third form of ‘tell’- told, does not require the use of preposition ‘to’ in this context.Harry told Katy.
Other Context‘Say’ may also refer to ‘think’.My mother wants me to find a job. What do you say? (What do you think?)‘Tell’ can be used to ‘order’ someone to do something.Don’t tell me what to do.In this context, ‘tell’ is followed by ‘to’.
Story recitation‘Say’ is not used in terms of reciting a story or a tale.‘Tell’ is used when we say that we are reciting a tale or story.She was telling a story about her parents.
ExamplesHe did not say anything to her.Mona says anything that comes to her mind.They will tell me everything.Ram tells him to stop smoking.

What is Say?

As mentioned earlier, 'say' is a transitive verb. 'Say' is used for speaking terms to communicate information, an opinion, or a feeling. Let's look at some of the meanings and uses of the word 'Say' in other forms as well.

Verb forms of Say

  • Simple Present/Present Indefinite Tense – They say yes. I say welcome.
  • Present Continuous Tense – I am saying yes. They are saying no.
  • Present Perfect Tense – They have said yes. She has said no.
  • Present Perfect Continuous Tense – They have been saying that. He has been saying yes.
  • Simple Past Tense – He said yes. They said that.
  • Past Continuous Tense – She was saying that. They were saying yes.
  • Past Perfect Tense – He had said yes. They have said no.
  • Past Perfect Continuous Tense – She had been saying no. They had been saying yes.
  • Simple future – We will say that. I will say yes.
  • Future Continuous Tense – He will be saying that. I will be saying yes. 
  • Future Perfect Tense – They will have said yes. She will have said that.
  • Future Perfect Continuous Tense – He will have been saying no. We will have been saying yes.

Different definitions and meanings of Say

  • It is used to express in words - State something. 

Harry said that she wanted to eat rice.

  • It is utilised to state an opinion or belief - Declaring a point of view. 

I say let's enjoy the party.

  • Say is also applied to give directions to or lead somebody to do something with command. 

My father said to stop fighting.

  • It can be used as an expression of opinion. 

I can have my say on this matter.

  • It is applied for speaking, pronouncing, or uttering in a certain way. 

He cannot say marshmallows. 

  • It is used in sentences where things have to be communicated or expressed non-verbally. 

What does this painting say?

Use of Say in Idioms

  • It is easier said than done - something much tougher to do than to talk about.

“Why don't you reject that guy?”

“It is easier said than done.”

  • Goes without saying - something that is obvious or could be anticipated easily.

“Of course, Sam will marry Sara. That goes without saying.”

  • Enough said - it means that you understand a crisis; there is no necessity to describe any more. 

“Ram's a doctor, remember?” “Enough said.”

  • If you don't me saying so - it gets used when one is going to condemn someone or express something that might upset them.

“That dish will not please people if you don't mind me saying so.”

  • I'm glad to say that - when a person is commenting on a situation and saying that the person is happy about it. 

“Most doctors, I am glad to say, take their jobs with commitment”.

What is Tell?

'Tell' is a transitive verb used for giving some form of instruction or details to someone in particular, in speech or writing. The name of the receiver or an object pronoun is a must to follow the verb Tell. Let's have a look at some of its forms, meanings, and uses.

Verb forms of Tell

  • Simple Present Tense - He tells me. They tell her.
  • Present Continuous Tense - We are telling him. He is telling them.
  • Present Perfect Tense - She has told everyone. They have told us.
  • Present Perfect Continuous Tense - He has been telling them. We have been telling the girls.
  • Simple Past Tense - They told the lady. He told me.
  • Past Continuous Tense - She was telling her. We were telling them.
  • Past Perfect Tense - He has told me. They have told us.
  • Past Perfect Continuous Tense - He had been telling them. We had been telling her.
  • Simple Future Tense - She will tell me. They will tell her.
  • Future Continuous Tense - We will be telling them. He will be telling her.
  • Future Perfect Tense - He will have told him. They will have told us.
  • Future Perfect Continuous Tense - She will have been telling us. We will have been telling them.

Meanings and Definitions of Tell

  • Tell is used to give an account or narrative of a story or a tale; for narrating. 

Harry tells the story of their childhood.

  • Tell is used to inform via speech or written form; to communicate. 

He was telling Sara about the call. 

  • It is used to separate or differentiate. 

She could hardly tell the difference between the two.

  • Tell is used to bid, order, or command. 

Sam must tell him to stop.

Use of Tell in phrases

  • For Lying- for saying something that is not true. 

Simi was telling lies.

  • to tell the truth - to be honest to someone. 

To tell you the truth, I didn't like Max at all.

  • to identify, know, or be sure about something. 

I can tell you are sad.

  • For informing something that will happen in the receiver's future. 

She will tell you about the party.

Main Differences Between Say and Tell (In Points)

  • If you take a close look at their definitions, you may comprehend the difference that they hold. Say means to deliver what one wants to convey through words. Tell means delivering information or instruction to a particular person about something. 
  • Generally, ‘Tell’ is used when we say that we are reciting a story, which is not the case with 'say'. The correct sentence is - I am telling a story. I am saying a story - will be incorrect.
  • While using Say, the receiver need not be specified; it is optional. But, when Tell is present, there has to be a receiver of the information or instruction mentioned. 
  • Say can also come in place of 'to think'. Example- "I think Sam will come tomorrow. What do you say?" This is not the case with Tell.
  • Tell can also mean 'to order or instruct'. For example- Jack tells him to leave. Say is not used in this manner.
  • The third form of Say i.e. Said requires the preposition ‘to’ along with it.

For instance - Sammy said to him.

The past tense of Tell does not need 'to' as a following preposition.

For example - Sammy told him.

  • On one hand, Tell comes with an indirect object. For example- tell them something, Ram tells her, and so on. But Say does not necessarily require an indirect object.


English as a subject is very confusing. It consists of words and phrases that sometimes only look the same; sometimes, they even have similar meanings. Only a slight difference between those words can bring about a significant distinction in their usage and sense. Say and Tell are two such words. They both are verbs and are used to convey some words to the other person, but are a little different.

Where Say is used to express an opinion or thought via words. Tell is used to instruct or inform a specific person about something. They both are used in different idioms and phrases, which changes the intention of the sentence completely.

It can be easy to remember their difference if you start using them cautiously in your day-to-day life. Keep in mind their meanings and then use them in a sentence. Don't blindly use them in any sense or like you used to do previously, if wrong. This article has tried to cover the primary things related to Say and Tell and has highlighted the main differences between Say and Tell with appropriate examples.


  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transitive_verb#History
  • https://www.myenglishpages.com/english/grammar-lesson-difference-between-say-tell.php
  • https://www.dictionary.com/browse/tell
  • https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/say


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"Difference Between Say and Tell." Diffzy.com, 2024. Mon. 13 May. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-say-and-tell>.

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