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'say' and 'tell'

Misuan Santi asks:

I would like to know the correct use of say and tell with respect to verbs used in direct and indirect speech, for example:

Brian said to me: I speak Russian or Brian told me he spoke Russian.

Roger replies:


Say is the standard verb which is used to indicate direct speech in any narrative - anecdotes, short stories, novels, etc. It is often used with other 'reporting' verbs, which may be more descriptive or more colourful than the all-purpose say and therefore preferred.

Compare the following:
  • "What do you think?" asked Mary, holding up the wedding dress.
  • "Oh, it looks lovely," they all chorused.
  • "It smells a bit musty," ventured William after a moment's silence.
  • "That's because it's been shut up in this wardrobe for the last twenty years," replied Jo.
  • "I'm sure it'll be all right," said Vanessa encouragingly.

Say is also used to introduce indirect speech with a that clause. In the examples that follow, please note:

~ the conjuction that is usually not used, unless it is needed to emphasise what is being reported

~ say cannot be followed by a direct personal object

~ as with the direct speech examples above, other reporting verbs may be preferred

  • She said (that) she was going out. (Not: She said me…)And she admitted (that) she might be late back.
  • They said/mentioned (that) Carlos had behaved very strangely when they were in Rio.
  • He said/insisted (that) he had been driving very slowly when the accident happened.


If we use tell to report statements like those above in indirect speech, we must remember that tell has to be followed by a direct personal object:

  • 'He told her (that) he loved her.' (Not: He told that he loved her.)

  • 'They told us (that) they had already bought us a wedding present.'

  • 'How can you stand there and tell me now that you're not going through with it?' she shouted.

Tell is often used with an object + infinitive to express orders, instructions, requests and advice.

Other reporting verbs can also be used in this way, although say cannot be used like this. Compare the following:

  • 'He told them to stay on the path and not to wander off into the woods.' (Not: He said them…)

  • 'I asked her to get me some apples.'

  • 'They advised Gladys not to worry. Tom would be all right.

  • 'They told/asked/advised/warned him to turn the music down as everybody else was already in bed and wanted to sleep.
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