“Say” and “tell” are synonyms related to speaking.

“Say” means to speak or pronounce words, to express a thought, opinion or suggestion, or state a fact or instruction. “Said” is the past tense.

“Tell” means to say something to someone, usually information or instructions. “Told” is the past tense.


1.   “Say” focuses on what the speaker expresses; “Tell” focuses on what the speaker expresses to the listener.

With “say,” it is not necessary to include the listener.

  • “He said (that) he was tired.”
  • “What did he say?”

If you want to include the listener, you have to add the preposition “to.”

  • “He said to me (that) he was tired.”
  • “What did he say to you?”

Told” is usually followed by the listener without the preposition “to.”

  • “He told me (that) he was tired.”
    Not – “He told (that) he was tired.”
    Not – “He told to me (that) he was tired.”
  • “What did he tell you?”
    Not – “What did he tell?”
    Not – “What did he tell to you?”
2.   Direct speech – “say” is more common; Indirect speech – “say” or “tell.”

Direct speech refers to the exact words spoken or quotes. This is more common with “say.”

  • “I’ll be there soon,” he said.
  • He says, “Don’t worry about it.”

“Tell” can be used in direct speech, although this is not that common in speaking. I think you might see this more often in written English. “Tell” is also usually used with giving instruction or information.

  • “Don’t forget the milk,” his mother told him.
  • “It’s not the same!” Eve told him angrily.

“Say” can be used with questions in direct speech, but not with “tell.”

  • “Where are you?” she said.
    Not – “Where are you?” she told.
    Not – “Where are you?” she told me.

Reported or indirect speech is to express the content of what someone has said rather than the exact words. This can be used with “say” and “tell.”

  • “He said he’ll arrive soon.”
  • “He told me not to worry about it.”
3.   “Tell” is often followed by an infinitive or infinitive phrase.

The infinitive form of a verb starts with “to” – like “to write” or “to read” for example.

Usually this would be a command or instruction with “tell.”

  • “They told us to come again next week.”
  • “She told him to rewrite the essay.”

You can use “say” but this is considered informal.

  • “They said to come again next week.”
  • “She said to rewrite the essay.”

You can also use this in the passive voice. Here the emphasis is only on the listener.

  • We were told to come again next week.”
  • He was told to rewrite the essay.”

Related expressions

“Say a lot about someone/something”
– to clearly show or express something about someone or something.

  • “Where people buy their groceries says a lot about them.
  • “It says a lot about Eve if she’s willing to spend her weekends working instead of going out with friends.”

“Tell on somebody”
– (phrasal verb, informal) to give information about someone’s bad behaviour or secrets – usually to someone in authority.

  • “If you don’t stop screaming, I’m going to tell on you!”
  • “I can’t believe it. I came to work late and my colleague told on me.”

“Tell somebody off”
– to speak angrily to someone because they have done something wrong.

  • “The teacher told the boys off for playing soccer indoors.”
  • I got told off for forgetting to pick up my sister from school.”