Difference Between Say and Tell

Main Difference – Say vs Tell

Say and Tell are two verbs that refer to the act of verbally communicating with someone. The main difference between say and tell is that Say is not immediately followed by a personal object whereas Tell is generally followed by a personal object. In simple words, say is written in a sentence as say something to someone but tell is written as tell someone something.

Say – Meaning and Usage

Say can be defined as uttering of words so as to convey information, an opinion, a feeling or intention, or instruction. Generally, say is immediately followed by its direct object. In most sentences, it does not take an indirect object.

He said he was sorry.

He said that he had to leave early.

In both these examples, say is followed by the direct object i.e. the reported clause.

It is important to note that we cannot write a personal object immediately after say. We have to include the preposition to bring sense to the sentence.

She said me that ….X

She said to me that…

Say can be used in both direct speech and reported speech. Out of say and tell, Say is the most used verb in direct speech. For instance,

“I just heard that you got promoted. Congratulations” she said.

He said, “I don’t think I can make it to the party.”

In reported speech, say is used when we are focusing on the words said by someone. Here, not much attention is paid to the content.

“Hello”, she said.Main Difference - Say vs Tell

Tell – Meaning and Usage

Tell can be defined as communicating information to someone in spoken or written words. It is always written in the structure ‘tell someone something.’

Tell is always followed by an object noun or a pronoun. Unlike in say, there are no prepositions between the verb and the object.

I told everyone that it was time to go home.

He tells me that he is going abroad.

Tell normally takes a both direct object and indirect object.

He told me he didn’t want my pity.

me – indirect object

he didn’t want my pity.– direct object

However, in certain instances, tell can be used without an indirect object. For instance,

Little boys must never tell tales.

You can use tell to give orders or advice as well. In this case, you have to use the structure

tell + object + infinitive

I told him to wait.

They told me to sit down.

In direct speech, tell can be only used with instructions or information. For example

He told them, “I’ve been to England twice.”

He told her, “Shut the door quietly.”

Difference Between Say and Tell

Grandfather is telling a story.

Difference Between Say and Tell


You Say something to someone

You Tell someone something.

Personal object

Say is not immediately followed by a personal object.

Tell is generally followed by a personal object.


Say usually does not take an indirect object.

Tell takes both direct object and indirect object.

Direct Speech

Say is extensively used in direct speech.

Tell is only used in direct speech to give instructions or orders.

Reported Speech

Say focuses more on the words someone uttered.

Tell focus more on the content or message of what someone said.Difference Between Say and Tell - infographic

Image Courtesy:

“Anker Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte 1884” by Albert Anker – Albert Anker, Sandor Kuthy und andere, Orell Füssli Verlag, Zürich 1980. (Public Domain) via Commons 

“Say NO to DRUGS, say YES to TACOS” by Zaneology (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

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