Ask Difference

Say vs. Tell — What's the Difference?

By Tayyaba Rehman — Published on September 3, 2023
"Say" involves expressing something in words, while "tell" involves informing someone directly.
Say vs. Tell — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Say and Tell

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Key Differences

"Say" and "tell" are both verbs used in the English language to convey communication. However, they're used in slightly different contexts. While "say" often focuses on the act of verbal expression, "tell" zeroes in on the recipient of the message.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 03, 2023
In everyday conversations, when people refer to something they've heard, they might use "say." For instance, "What did she say?" "Tell," on the other hand, tends to demand an object or person to whom the information is directed, as in "Tell me a story."
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 03, 2023
"Say" can be used in reported speech without directly pointing out the listener. An example might be, "She said she was tired." With "tell," the listener becomes important. For instance, "She told him that she was tired."
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 03, 2023
Another distinction lies in command or instruction. When one uses "say," the emphasis is on repeating or expressing a particular phrase: "Say 'hello' to her." Conversely, "tell" instructs someone to inform or convey information: "Tell her about the meeting."
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 03, 2023
"Say" often feels more neutral, simply referring to verbal expressions. "Tell" often implies a deeper level of communication, sharing, or informing.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 03, 2023
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Comparison Chart

Basic Meaning

Expressing something in words.
Informing someone directly.
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Object Requirement

Often doesn't need a direct object.
Requires a direct object (the person being informed).
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Reported Speech

Used without specifying the listener: "He said he was hungry."
Needs the listener: "He told me he was hungry."
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Command/Instruction

Focus on repeating: "Say the magic word."
Instruct to inform: "Tell him the truth."
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Level of Depth

Neutral verbal expression.
Implies deeper communication or sharing of information.
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Sep 03, 2023

Compare with Definitions

Say

To utter words vocally.
I didn't hear what you said.
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Aug 23, 2023

Tell

To discern or recognize.
You can tell she's upset by her voice.
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Aug 23, 2023

Say

To express an opinion or belief.
They say it's going to rain tomorrow.
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Tell

To inform or communicate information.
Tell me about your day.
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Aug 23, 2023

Say

Saw.
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Tell

To order or instruct.
Tell him to stop.
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Say

A kind of silk or satin.
Thou say, thou serge, nay, thou buckram lord!
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Tell

To count or enumerate.
She can tell all the states in alphabetical order.
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Say

Report or maintain;
He alleged that he was the victim of a crime
He said it was too late to intervene in the war
The registrar says that I owe the school money
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Tell

To give a detailed account of; narrate
Told what happened.
Told us a story.
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Say

Have or contain a certain wording or form;
The passage reads as follows
What does the law say?
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Tell

To narrate.
I want to tell a story;
I want to tell you a story.
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Say

State as one's opinion or judgement; declare;
I say let's forget this whole business
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Tell

Communicate information to someone in spoken or written words
We must be told the facts
‘We have nothing in common,’ she told him
He's telling the truth
I told her you were coming
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Say

To indicate or suggest something.
The clock says it's midnight.
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Aug 23, 2023

Tell

Decide or determine correctly or with certainty
I couldn't tell if he believed me
You can tell they're in love
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Say

To make a statement or express an opinion or judgment
The story must be true because the teacher said so.
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Tell

(of an experience or period of time) have a noticeable, typically harmful, effect on someone
The strain of supporting the family was beginning to tell on him
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Say

(intransitive) To speak; to express an opinion; to make answer; to reply.
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Tell

Count (the members of a group)
The shepherd had told all his sheep
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Say

(colloquial) Used to gain someone's attention before making an inquiry or suggestion
Say, what did you think about the movie?
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Tell

(especially in poker) an unconscious action that is thought to betray an attempted deception.
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Say

Express a supposition;
Let us say that he did not tell the truth
Let's say you had a lot of money--what would you do?
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Tell

(in the Middle East) an artificial mound formed by the accumulated remains of ancient settlements.
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Say

Indicate;
The clock says noon
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Tell

To communicate by speech or writing; express with words
She told him that the store was closed. Tell me the truth.
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Say

To repeat a specific phrase.
Say 'I love you' to her.
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Aug 23, 2023

Tell

To notify (someone) of something; inform
He told us of his dream to sail around the world.
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Say

Utter words so as to convey information, an opinion, a feeling or intention, or an instruction
He said to come early
Our parents wouldn't believe a word we said
‘Thank you,’ he said
He said the fund stood at £100,000
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Tell

To make known; disclose or reveal
Tell a secret.
Tell fortunes.
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Say

Assume something in order to work out what its consequences would be; make a hypothesis
Let's say we pay in five thousand pounds in the first year
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Tell

To inform (someone) positively; assure
I tell you, the plan will work.
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Say

Used to express surprise or to draw attention to a remark or question
Say, did you notice any blood?
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Tell

To give instructions to; direct
Told the customers to wait in line.
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Say

An opportunity for stating one's opinion or feelings
She let him have his say
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Tell

To discover by observation; discern
We could tell that he was upset.
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Say

To utter aloud; pronounce
The children said, "Good morning.".
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Tell

To name or number one by one; count
Telling one's blessings.
16 windows, all told.
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Say

To express in words
Say what's on your mind.
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Tell

To relate a story or give an account of an event
The sailor told of having been adrift for days.
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Say

To state as an opinion or judgment; declare
I say let's eat out.
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Tell

To reveal something that is not supposed to be revealed, especially something that someone has done wrong
She promised not to tell on her friend.
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Say

To state as a determination of fact
It's hard to say who is right in this matter.
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Tell

To have an effect or impact
In this game every move tells.
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Say

To report or maintain; allege
It is said he is a fraud.
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Tell

An unintentional or unconsciously exhibited behavior that reveals or betrays one's state of mind, as when playing poker.
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Say

To repeat or recite
Said grace.
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Tell

A mound, especially in the Middle East, made up of the remains of a succession of previous settlements.
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Say

To indicate; show
The clock says half past two.
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Tell

To count, reckon, or enumerate.
All told, there were over a dozen.
Can you tell time on a clock?
He had untold wealth.
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Say

To give nonverbal expression to; signify or embody
It was an act that said "devotion.".
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Tell

To convey by speech; to say.
Finally, someone told him the truth.
He seems to like to tell lies.
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Say

To suppose; assume
Let's say that you're right.
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Tell

(transitive) To instruct or inform.
Please tell me how to do it.
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Say

A turn or chance to speak
Having had my say, I sat down.
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Tell

(transitive) To order; to direct, to say to someone.
Tell him to go away.
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Say

The right or power to influence or make a decision
Citizens have a say in the councils of government. All I want is some say in the matter.
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Tell

To discern, notice, identify or distinguish.
Can you tell whether those flowers are real or silk, from this distance?
No, there's no way to tell.
I can tell you're upset.
An expert can tell an original from a forgery.
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Say

(Archaic) Something said; a statement.
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Tell

(transitive) To reveal.
Time will tell what became of him.
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Say

Approximately
There were, say, 500 people present.
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Tell

(intransitive) To be revealed.
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Say

For instance
A woodwind, say an oboe.
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Tell

(intransitive) To have an effect, especially a noticeable one; to be apparent, to be demonstrated.
Sir Gerald was moving slower; his wounds were beginning to tell.
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Say

Used to express surprise or appeal for someone's attention.
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Tell

To use (beads or similar objects) as an aid to prayer.
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Say

(transitive) To pronounce.
Please say your name slowly and clearly.
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Tell

To inform someone in authority about a wrongdoing.
I saw you steal those sweets! I'm telling!
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Say

(transitive) To recite.
Martha, will you say the Pledge of Allegiance?
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Tell

To reveal information in prose through outright expository statement -- contrasted with show
Maria rewrote the section of her novel that talked about Meg and Sage's friendship to have less telling and more showing.
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Say

(transitive) To tell, either verbally or in writing.
He said he would be here tomorrow.
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Tell

A reflexive, often habitual behavior, especially one occurring in a context that often features attempts at deception by persons under psychological stress (such as a poker game or police interrogation), that reveals information that the person exhibiting the behavior is attempting to withhold.
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Say

(transitive) To indicate in a written form.
The sign says it’s 50 kilometres to Paris.
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Tell

(archaic) That which is told; a tale or account.
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Say

To have a common expression; used in singular passive voice or plural active voice to indicate a rumor or well-known fact.
They say "when in Rome, do as the Romans do", which means "behave as those around you do."
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Oct 08, 2021

Tell

(internet) A private message to an individual in a chat room; a whisper.
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Say

Suppose, assume; used to mark an example, supposition or hypothesis.
A holiday somewhere warm – Florida, say – would be nice.
Say he refuses. What do we do then?
Say your family is starving and you don't have any money, is it okay to steal some food?
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Oct 08, 2021

Tell

(archaeology) A hill or mound, originally and especially in the Middle East, over or consisting of the ruins of ancient settlements.
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Say

To bet as a wager on an outcome; by extension, used to express belief in an outcome by the speaker.
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Tell

To mention one by one, or piece by piece; to recount; to enumerate; to reckon; to number; to count; as, to tell money.
He telleth the number of the stars.
Tell the joints of the body.
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Say

To try; to assay.
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Tell

To utter or recite in detail; to give an account of; to narrate.
Of which I shall tell all the array.
And not a man appears to tell their fate.
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Say

A chance to speak; the right or power to influence or make a decision.
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Tell

To make known; to publish; to disclose; to divulge.
Why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?
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Say

A type of fine cloth similar to serge.
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Tell

To give instruction to; to make report to; to acquaint; to teach; to inform.
A secret pilgrimage,That you to-day promised to tell me of?
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Say

Trial by sample; assay; specimen.
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Tell

To order; to request; to command.
He told her not to be frightened.
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Oct 08, 2021

Say

Tried quality; temper; proof.
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Tell

To discern so as to report; to ascertain by observing; to find out; to discover; as, I can not tell where one color ends and the other begins.
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Say

Essay; trial; attempt.
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Tell

To make account of; to regard; to reckon; to value; to estimate.
I ne told no dainity of her love.
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Say

For example; let us assume.
Pick a color you think they'd like, say, peach.
He was driving pretty fast, say, fifty miles per hour.
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Oct 08, 2021

Tell

To give an account; to make report.
That I may publish with the voice of thankgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works.
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Oct 08, 2021

Say

Trial by sample; assay; sample; specimen; smack.
If those principal works of God . . . be but certain tastes and says, as it were, of that final benefit.
Thy tongue some say of breeding breathes.
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Tell

To take effect; to produce a marked effect; as, every shot tells; every expression tells.
Lest they should tell on us, saying, So did David.
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Say

Tried quality; temper; proof.
He found a sword of better say.
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Tell

That which is told; tale; account.
I am at the end of my tell.
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Oct 08, 2021

Say

Essay; trial; attempt.
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Tell

A hill or mound.
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Say

A delicate kind of serge, or woolen cloth.
His garment neither was of silk nor say.
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Oct 08, 2021

Tell

A Swiss patriot who lived in the early 14th century and who was renowned for his skill as an archer; according to legend an Austrian governor compelled him to shoot an apple from his son's head with his crossbow (which he did successfully without mishap)
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Oct 08, 2021

Say

A speech; something said; an expression of opinion; a current story; a maxim or proverb.
He no sooner said out his say, but up rises a cunning snap.
That strange palmer's boding say,That fell so ominous and drearFull on the object of his fear.
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Oct 08, 2021

Tell

Express in words;
He said that he wanted to marry her
Tell me what is bothering you
State your opinion
State your name
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Oct 08, 2021

Say

To try; to assay.
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Tell

Let something be known;
Tell them that you will be late
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Say

To utter or express in words; to tell; to speak; to declare; as, he said many wise things.
Arise, and say how thou camest here.
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Tell

Narrate or give a detailed account of;
Tell what happened
The father told a story to his child
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Oct 08, 2021

Say

To repeat; to rehearse; to recite; to pronounce; as, to say a lesson.
Of my instruction hast thou nothing batedIn what thou hadst to say?
After which shall be said or sung the following hymn.
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Oct 08, 2021

Tell

Give instructions to or direct somebody to do something with authority;
I said to him to go home
She ordered him to do the shopping
The mother told the child to get dressed
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Oct 08, 2021

Say

To announce as a decision or opinion; to state positively; to assert; hence, to form an opinion upon; to be sure about; to be determined in mind as to.
But what it is, hard is to say.
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Oct 08, 2021

Tell

Discern or comprehend;
He could tell that she was unhappy
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Oct 08, 2021

Say

To mention or suggest as an estimate, hypothesis, or approximation; hence, to suppose; - in the imperative, followed sometimes by the subjunctive; as, he had, say fifty thousand dollars; the fox had run, say ten miles.
Say, for nonpayment that the debt should double,Is twenty hundred kisses such a trouble?
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Oct 08, 2021

Tell

Inform positively and with certainty and confidence;
I tell you that man is a crook!
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Oct 08, 2021

Say

To speak; to express an opinion; to make answer; to reply.
You have said; but whether wisely or no, let the forest judge.
To this argument we shall soon have said; for what concerns it us to hear a husband divulge his household privacies?
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Tell

Give evidence;
He was telling on all his former colleague
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Say

The chance to speak;
Let him have his say
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Tell

Mark as different;
We distinguish several kinds of maple
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Say

Express in words;
He said that he wanted to marry her
Tell me what is bothering you
State your opinion
State your name
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Oct 08, 2021

Tell

To narrate or relate an event.
He told a fascinating story.
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Say

Utter aloud;
She said `Hello' to everyone in the office
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Say

Give instructions to or direct somebody to do something with authority;
I said to him to go home
She ordered him to do the shopping
The mother told the child to get dressed
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Say

Speak, pronounce, or utter in a certain way;
She pronounces French words in a funny way
I cannot say `zip wire'
Can the child sound out this complicated word?
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Say

Recite or repeat a fixed text;
Say grace
She said her `Hail Mary'
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Say

Communicate or express nonverbally;
What does this painting say?
Did his face say anything about how he felt?
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Oct 08, 2021

Say

To assume for the sake of argument or explanation.
Let's say you win the lottery; what would you do?
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Aug 23, 2023

Common Curiosities

Can "tell" be used without specifying whom you're telling?

Generally, no. "Tell" typically needs a direct object or listener.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 03, 2023

Why do we use "said" in reported speech?

"Said" is neutral and doesn't require specifying the listener, making it common in reported speech.
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Sep 03, 2023

Is it correct to ask, "What did he say to you?"

Yes, but it's more common to ask, "What did he tell you?"
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Sep 03, 2023

Can "tell" be used in the context of recognition?

Yes, like in "I can tell he's lying by his eyes."
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Sep 03, 2023

Can "say" and "tell" be used interchangeably?

Not always. "Tell" usually requires an object (the listener), while "say" might not.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 03, 2023

When should I use "say" versus "tell"?

Use "say" for expressing something in words and "tell" when informing someone directly.
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Sep 03, 2023

Can "say" refer to non-verbal indications?

Yes, as in "The sign says 'Exit.'"
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Sep 03, 2023

Why do we say, "Say the magic word," not "Tell the magic word"?

"Say" focuses on repeating a specific phrase, while "tell" focuses on informing.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 03, 2023

How does "tell" imply deeper communication?

"Tell" involves the sharing or conveying of information directly to someone, hence it feels more intimate.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 03, 2023

Do "say" and "tell" have other meanings outside of communication?

Yes, for instance, "tell" can mean to count, and "say" can be used in the context of assuming for explanation.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 03, 2023

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Tayyaba Rehman
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to askdifference.com. As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.

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