Difference Between Say and Tell
‘Say’ and ‘tell’ are both verbs that are used for the act of speaking. While they are both about talking or informing, one of them is mainly transitive while the other can be used in all contexts.
‘Say’ primarily means to speak something aloud or otherwise communicate in some way.
“I say the pledge as directed.”
“He said he would be there.”
It can also be used to mark a suggestion that is hypothetical.
“If I asked you for, say, one hundred bouquets, would you be able to deliver them?”
“Let’s say you were starving and saw the opportunity to steal some money to eat. Would you do it?”
Finally, there are a few nouns based off the verb. The first is ‘say’, which means input on a subject.
“Don’t I get a say in this?”
Second, there is the term ‘saying’, which is something that is commonly said.
“There’s a saying for that: don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
‘Tell’ means primarily to talk to someone else. More specifically, it means to convey information to another person.
“Tell him I don’t want to talk to him.”
“The child tells his mother what he learned in school that day.”
It can also be used to refer to counting. In fact, the word that ‘tell’ descended from originally meant calculation. The very popular phrase ‘tell time’ comes from this meaning, as it means to count time, and ‘untold’ means something that has not been counted, or is too large to count.
“All told, they were lucky to be alive.”
“His riches were rumored to be untold.”
It has also come to mean being able to identify or distinguish something. It’s nearly always used in present tense form – tell – or infinitive form – to tell.
“Can you tell whether this ring is real gold or not?”
“He was unable to tell if they were holding hands or not.”
‘Tell’ can also be used as a noun. The first meaning is a behavior that conveys information that the giver did not mean to impart, especially a habitual behavior. For example, if someone always scratches their arm when they lie, then that would be a tell.
The second meaning is borrowed from Arabic. It is a mound, usually in the Middle East, which covers or is built on a set of ruins.
Of the shared meanings, the biggest difference between ‘say’ and ‘tell’ is that ‘say’ can be used for any form of communication, while ‘tell’ is very specific. To tell a person something is to impart information to them. You cannot ‘tell’ something without saying who you are telling the information to. The person who is being told the information is usually mentioned in the sentence directly after the word appears, such as in “tell him”, “tell her” or “tell the cat”. It’s also more likely to be used when it describes an order or an explanation.
‘Say’ is much more general. There does not have to be a target for the information, and saying something does not always have to convey any type of information to anyone else. You can say something aloud to yourself, or say it to a group of people.
To summarize, ‘say’ means to speak and that a situation is hypothetical, and as a noun it means an input into a matter or a phrase that is commonly used. ‘Tell’ means to speak, to count, to identify something, and it can mean something that gives away an emotion or a type of mound in the Middle East. When they both mean to speak, ‘tell’ means to speak to another person and give them orders, while ‘say can be used generally for most kinds of speech or communication.
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