In this post, you will first find some bulletpoints outlining the main characteristics of usage for the verbs “Say” and “Tell”. Then you will see a wonderful image designed by a friend illustrating the case. Finally, there is a rather detailed explanation on both verbs. Enjoy!
- Let’s understand it this way: YOU SAY SOMETHING TO A PERSON AND YOU TELL A PERSON SOMETHING.
- “Say” prioritizes the message. What you find directly after “Say” is the message, not the person who receives the message.
- If you need to mention the person that receives the message, you place the receiver after the message using the preposition “TO” to demonstrate the direction in which the message goes.
- “Tell” places immediate emphasis on the person that receives the message. What you find right after “Tell” is the receiver and then the message.
A lengthy explanation: Yoga for Neo-Maxi-Zoom Dweebies (like me!)
Misconceptions in the learning of a certain language depend heavily on what language is the learner’s mother tongue. Of course, this is not any kind of major discovery in this day and age, but it is something very important to remember when you are either speaking or writing in English and you are not sure whether you are making a mistake or not.
If you run a Google search for the “most commons mistakes in English”, what you will find is a list of common mistakes among native English speakers. Most of these mistakes have to do with misspelling of words and expressions due to homophones (words that sound similarly, like “through” and “threw”) and, many times, these mistakes are the basis for issuing a prejudice against the intellect of the person who makes them without once considering how silly we sound making mistakes based on the usage of our own language.
Thus, we will look in some depth at the case of Say and Tell, two communication verbs with very specific rules in English but whose use for Spanish speakers might not be as clear since they can in many occasions be translated as Decir.
The confusion between “Say” and “Tell” starts because both can be translated into Spanish as “Decir” (“Say my name” = “Di mi nombre” | “Tell me that you love me” = “Dime que me amas”). But we won’t dwell in the whys and wherefores of unjust translations and approximations. Let’s understand it this way: YOU SAY SOMETHING TO A PERSON AND YOU TELL A PERSON SOMETHING.
Break this into pieces and you will get the rule. First, You say something. Whatever thing or person that appears next to the verb without the benefit of a preposition between them is an object. Think of it as an object and call it an object for the sake of clarity. After the verb “say” comes the object, something that answers the question “WHAT”.
- QUESTION: What did she say? ANSWER: She said that she would be late.
- QUESTION: What do you say before going to bed? ANSWER: You say good night.
“Say” prioritizes the message. What you find directly after “Say” is the message, not the person who receives the message.
Take this as a practical example: polite people say good morning, they say please and they say thank you. What matter is what polite people, not to whom they say those things. If you need to mention the person that receives the message, you place the receiver after the message using the preposition “TO” to demonstrate the direction in which the message goes. So, polite people say good morning to everyone, they say thank you to the person who has done something for them.
SAY + MESSAGE + TO + WHOEVER RECEIVES THE MESSAGE
Also, keep in mind that the conjunction “that” that introduces the message can be omitted: She said (that) she had seen the movie.
* * *
The sentence we were breaking into pieces was YOU SAY SOMETHING TO A PERSON AND YOU TELL A PERSON SOMETHING. Now we’ll take “Tell”.
“Tell” places immediate emphasis on the person that receives the message. What you find right after “Tell” is the receiver and then the message.
“Tell me that you love me, tell me that you need me, tell me that I am the only one, don’t tell other people about our secret, tell me that we will be together forever and I’ll tell you that I’m yours” –Generic Teenage Lover, 1921. There is no preposition between “Tell” and the person who gets the message. The message is found after the person who receives it and no preposition is required.
As a practical use of “Tell”, think that it is the perfect verb for gossiping: “Casca told Brutus that Cato told Caius that Marcus told Calphurnia that Julius Caesar got stabbed 23 times”.
TELL + PERSON + MESSAGE
Of course, there are exceptions. Think of this: I am not married but I said I was married to obtain benefits from my HMO. But this wasn’t true. So:
I said that I was married à (The message itself, that I was married).
I told a lie à (The concept of untrue information)
You tell lies, you tell the truth, you tell the difference.
Please go out there and tell everyone, and don’t say I didn’t tell you!