I often hear my students say things like “I say you what we did on the weekend” or “I told what we needed to do”. Both of which are wrong. So what’s the difference between these two words and when should you use them?

The basic rule is this:

  • You say something
  • You tell someone something

For example: Kathy said that she was tired. Bruno told Martin that he was tired. Cecile says you have a new job. Conny tells me you have a new job. Heiko said: “I love you.” Thekla told her husband that she loved him.

Because English grammar is not consistent 100% of the time, here are a few extra rules.

Sometimes you can say something to someone. Pay attention to the placement of the word “to”. Examples: He said to me that he was tired. NOT He said me that he was tired. Ingo said to her, “I hope you come soon.” NOT Ingo said her, “I hope you come soon.”

We can use say with direct questions, but not tell. Examples: Esther said: “Do you love me?” NOT Esther told: “Do you love me?” The wife said to her husband, “Where were you at 8pm?” NOT The wife told her husband, “Where were you at 8pm?”

Here are a few fixed phrases with tell. We cannot use say with these phrases:

  • tell (someone) a story
  • tell (someone) a lie
  • tell (someone) the truth
  • tell the future (to know what the future will bring)
  • tell the time (know how to read a clock)

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