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What’s the difference between say and tell?

Say and tell are both connected with speaking, but they are used differently.

The main difference is that tell is used with an indirect object (= someone), while say can often stand alone.

Choosing the right one doesn’t have to be tricky—we’ve summarised the differences below.


“I haven’t told Mabel about the cat yet.” said Anna.

“Haven’t you? What are you going to say?” asked Jane.

“I don’t know. I’ll say something.” replied Anna.

“Why don’t you just tell the truth?” asked Jane.

“That the cat ran away? No way! He’s back now – maybe I shouldn’t say anything. ” said Jane.


  • tell = say something to somebody
I haven’t told Mabel about the cat yet.
I’ll tell her the truth.
  • we don’t use tell alone: use it with an indirect object, often an object pronoun: me, you, him etc., but also a name or person: Mabel. The indirect object goes directly after tell.
What did she tell you? (not: What did she tell?)
She told me that the cat had run away.
  • tell is used without an indirect object in the following fixed expressions:
tell +
a lie → Children shouldn’t tell lies.
the truth → I'm going to tell the truth.
a joke → Max is great at telling jokes.
a story → The children stayed up late telling ghost stories.


  • say = use words, speak
“I haven’t told Mabel about the cat yet.” Said Anna.
What are you going to say?
  • don’t use object pronouns directly after say
What did she say? (not: What did she say you?)
She said that the cat had run away.
  • use the contruction say + to + indirect object to include an indirect object
What did she say to you?
Did you say something?
No I didn’t say anything.

Both say and tell are irregular verbs. Learn how to conjugate them as well as thousands of other English verbs with our verb conjugator. To learn about another pair of confusing words related to speaking, go to our page on speak vs. talk.