Say vs. Tell

Say is used with direct speech and is never followed by a direct personal object.  In other words, we don’t say who is being spoken to.

✔ “Those cookies smell good” said Jessica.

✔ Jessica said, “Those cookies smell good”.

✘ “Those cookies smell good” Jessica said him.

✔ “I really do love computers!” Daniel said.

✔ Daniel said, “I really do love computers!”.

✘ “I really do love computers!” Daniel said me.

.

Say is also used with indirect (reported) speech, with a “that” clause, although the conjunction “that” isn’t usually used.

✔ She said (that) she was going to the party.

✘ She said me (that) she was going to the party.

✔ They said (that) they were unhappy with the service.

✘ They said us (that) they were unhappy with the service.

.

Tell is only used with indirect (reported) speech and is always followed by a direct personal object.  In other words, we say who is being spoken to.  (Exceptions: Tell a story, tell the truth, tell a lie, tell the future, tell the time)

✔ She told him (that) she loved him.

✘ She told (that) she loved him.

✘ She said him (that) she loved him.

✔ We told them  (that) we were driving to Seattle.

✘ We told (that) we were driving to Seattle.

✘ We said them (that) we were driving to Seattle.

.

Tell is often used with an object + infinitive to express requests, instructions, orders, and advice.

  • I told him to get some milk from the store. (request)
  • He told me to turn left on Main Street. (directions)
  • She told him to leave. (order)
  • We told her not to worry. (advice)

.

Say and tell cannot be used with indirect (reported) questions.  In this case, we must replace say or tell with ask.

✔ James asked me to go with him.

✘ James told me (that) “will you go with me?”.

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