Archive for January 3, 2011

the difference between words: say and tell

Today I have a blog for you that will go over the difference between “say” and “tell”.

Basically we use “say” when talking about communicating something in general, but we don’t emphasize the person to whom we are talking. We use “tell” when we want to emphasize the person to whom we are talking. For example:

A: What did you say? I couldn’t hear you.

B: I said I wanted to go home.

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A: What did you tell your husband?

B: I told him I wanted to go home.

I want to say something. I really appreciate your kindness to me this week.

I want to tell you something. I really appreciate your kindness to me this week.

Is there something you want to say?

Is there something you want to tell me?

It is possible to use “say” when emphasizing the person to whom we are talking, but we must put the preposition “to” after “say”. For example:

A: What did you say to your husband?

B: I said I wanted to go home.

I want to say something to you. I really appreciate your kindness to me this week.

Is there something you want to say to me?

While it is possible to use “say to”, I think English speakers use “tell” more often when emphasizing the person. However, “say to” has a softer feeling and “tell” sounds more direct. Please note that in the first example person B did NOT say, “I said to him I wanted to go home.” as the response. Because “to your husband” was used in the question, it’s unnecessary to repeat “to” in the answer.

Also, please note that in the second example the person did NOT say, “I want to say to you something.” When we use the words “something” or “anything”, they always come after “say”.

Finally, there is another way to use the word “tell”.  We can also use it when talking about giving direct orders to someone. For example:

My boss told me to finish this report by tomorrow.

I told my friend to meet us at the station at 7:00.

I told my sister not to go into my room.

My mother told me to not be late for dinner.

In these situations when we use “tell”, it sounds very strong. If you want it to sound softer, you can use the word “ask”. For example:

I asked my friend to meet us at the station at 7:00.

Nick asked Susan to move over so he could sit down.

I asked my sister not to go into my room.

My mother asked me to not be late for dinner.

So, in these cases, “tell” or “ask” is followed by the infinitive (to + base form of a verb). In negative forms, we can use “not to…” or “to not…” with the words “tell” or “ask”. However, in my opinion, it’s more natural to use “not to…” with negative sentences of this kind.

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