When do I use Say vs. Tell?

The verbs "say" and "tell" are very similar in that they both describe communication between people. But we use them quite differently.

Look at this conversation between two friends, A and B, about a third friend, C. Friend A uses the verb “say”, while B uses “tell”. Can you figure out why? 

A: I think C said she was going to be here.
B: She told me she wasn’t.
A: Really? I was sure she said she was.
B: Well, I’m pretty sure she told me she wasn’t. I'd better call her.

Both A & B are reporting what C said, so why does A use “said” and B use “told”?

Simply put

Here's a simple way to remember the difference is:

  • You say something.
  • You tell someone something.

Another way of thinking about this is to consider two questions.

  • Say what?
  • Tell who?

Deeper explanation 

This is the more grammatical explanation. 

To understand this, you have to understand direct objects and indirect objects.

Here's a simple subject-verb-object (S-V-O) sentence: I called my boss. In this sentence, my boss is the direct object

We can add an indirect object: I told you I called my boss. In this sentence, you are the indirect object, and the point of the sentence—my boss—is the same as the previous example. 

  • To say” is a transitive verb that takes a direct object = what was said.
    • Eg: I said I was finished.
  • To tell” is a two-object verb, which means it needs to be followed by both an indirect object and a direct object = who you told, and what you told them.
    • Eg: I told you I was finished. 

Let’s look at the first two lines of the conversation again to see how it works.

A: I think C (subjectsaid (verb) she was going to be here (direct object).
B: She (subject)  told (verb) me (indirect object) she wasn’t (direct object).

So ask yourself: Do you simply have something to say? Or do you want to tell someone about it? The answer to that question will help you find the right verb to use.