If you frequently confuse the words SAY and TELL you’re not alone – these are some of the most commonly confused English words! Indeed, the meanings of these two verbs, TELL and SAY, are quite similar.
The main meaning of TELL is to "say or write something to someone."
The main meaning of SAY is to "use your voice to express something in words."
However, there are some clear and easy rules to follow about when to use these two words properly, as shown below.
TO TELL SOMEBODY SOMETHING.
so TELL is always followed by a person.
TO SAY SOMETHING
TO SAY THAT SOMETHING
TO SAY SOMETHING TO SOMEBODY
He told he could not come to the cinema. (This sentence is wrong!)
He said he could not come to the cinema. or He told me he could not come to the cinema.
TELL is normally followed by a personal direct object (here = me) and is not often used for direct speech.
SAY is more often used to introduce direct speech (when the writer wishes to indicate the exact words used, as in novels).
Mandy said: "I love you."
TELL is not often used to introduce direct speech, but it can be used, for example, to introduce a command or instructions.
Mandy told John that she loved him.
There were a lot of people in the street so I told my little brother: 'Stay near me. You won't get lost that way.'
We do not use SAY with certain expressions but TELL:
To tell a joke.
To tell a lie.
To tell a secret.
To tell a story.
To tell the truth.
In these cases it is not necessary to use a personal direct object.
The children were too excited to sleep so I told (them) a bedtime story.
So from now on don’t make this common mistake!
Brian said me that he had to go.
Brian told me that he had to go.
After reading this lesson you may want to do some exercises, then click HERE.