Sunday, April 1, 2012

Say or tell?

These two verbs have similar meanings, but they are not always used in the same way.
The main difference between them is the order of the complements after the verbs:
Say something to someone
          D.O.               I.O.
Tell someone something
          I.O.           D.O.
So, say is usually followed by the direct object, while tell needs an indirect object first.

Say and tell are both used in direct and indirect speech, but we must point out a few things:
  • In direct speech, say can introduce statements, exclamations and questions, tell can only introduce statements. Inversion of say and noun subject is possible when it follows the statement. Mary said: “What a beautiful morning!”. “What a beautiful morning!”, said Mary. (Notice the subject-verb inversion). However, there is no inversion with tell.
  • In indirect speech, both say and tell can be used in statements, but not in questions. Other verbs such as ask, inquire, wonder or want to know can be used. “Where do you live?” He asked me where I lived.
  • In reported commands, requests or advice, we can use tell, but say is not possible.
Charlie said: “Go home, Snoopy”. Charlie told Snoopy to go home.
If you need more information about indirect or reported speech, have a look at this blog entry.

There are expressions in which these two verbs are not interchangeable. These are collocations and they must be learnt by heart:
yes the truth
no a lie
something a joke
a prayer the time
a word a story
hello a secret
goodbye the difference
Idioms with say and tell:
  • Kiss and tell: to talk on television, in a newspaper etc. about a sexual relationship you have had with a famous person, especially in order to get a lot of money. The singer's ex-girlfriend was paid £20,000 by a tabloid newspaper to kiss and tell.
  • Before you can say Jack Robinson: almost immediately. I’ll be there before you can say Jack Robinson.
  • Never say never: anything can happen, all the options are possible. He says he doesn’t want to run for president, but never say never...
  • Time will tell: something will become known in the course of time. Who knows what the future will bring? Only time will tell.
In the following song, Justin Bieber says he wants to start a relationship with a girl, but he is a bit reluctant because he doesn’t know if she is going to tell everybody about it. So, he asks her if she is going to kiss and tell.

Finally, here are some exercises to practise what we have learnt today:
Say or tell? Multiple choice.
Say, tell or ask?
Reporting commands


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