ENGLISCH/738: Questions to Mrs. Gobbledygook (116) tell-say-speak (SB)


116. The difference between "speak", "tell" and "say"?

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

... I am trying to learn English by myself. But now I have a question, to which I haven't found an answer so far. Maybe you know the difference between the verbs "to tell", "to say" and "to speak"?

Thank you very much

Klaudia Dobinska (Wagrowiec, Poland)


Dear Ms Dobinska

Thank you very much for writing. In fact this question is rather frequently asked by lots of learners of English, so a few years ago in the internet I found nearly exactly the same question and an answer to it by Catherine Walters (BBC Learning English). Catherine Walter is the Course Leader of the MA in Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at the Institute of Education, University of London, where she also investigates second language reading comprehension and supervises doctoral students. Furthermore she is the co-author with Professor Michael Swan of "The Good Grammar Book" and "How English Works". So in my opinion she is most competent on the fields of grammar and linguistics and therefore the right person to answer your question.

Now, in her text about "tell", "say" and "speak" she wrote that it is not surprising to find these three words confusing because, as far as meaning goes, these words mean more or less the same thing. It is more a question of how they are used:

"With 'tell' we usually say who is told. You could say there is a personal object, so: "Can you tell m-e what's happened?" We say, "me".

With "say" we don't usually say who is told. So you might say "please say each word clearly and distinctly". And if we 'd-o' say who is told, we use the word "to", so: "He said goodbye 't-o m-e' as if we would never see one another again".
(BBC-Learning English Website, 31. Dezember 2005)

Now, moreover she explains, that there is another limit on the usage of "tell". We only use "tell" to mean instruct or inform:

"I told him to wait for me on the platform" ... that's an instruction.

"My father used to tell me wonderful stories" - informing me.
(BBC-Learning English Website, 31. Dezember 2005)

So the use of "tell" is somehow limited. On the other hand, "say" can be used for any kind of talking. Mrs Walter gave us three examples where you could not use "tell" instead:

She said "Where have you been?"

So I said what a good idea.

Maureen said "What's the matter?"

(BBC-Learning English Website, 31. Dezember 2005)

[Notice the British punctuation: no commas, no colons, editor's comment]. There are a few expressions in which "tell" is used without a personal object. These are kind of fixed or even idiomatic expressions which we know today as so-called chunks like "tell the truth", "tell the time" and "tell the difference".

Also she points out that there are some marker-words which are always connected with "say" like "a word", "a name" or "a sentence". An example would be: "Don't say a word." "Say a sentence with "excellent" and "great".

That's "tell" and "say". But you also asked about "to speak". Here again Mrs Catherine Walter has the perfect explanation:

We use "speak" to mean "talk formally", and when we do use "speak", we use the word "to" if there's a personal object. So you could say, "I spoke to him severely" or "She spoke to our teachers' association last year".
(BBC-Learning English Website, 31. Dezember 2005)

And last but not least we use "speak" when we are talking about people's language ability: "Do you speak English?"

Which you do, and hoping that this will help you be happier with the way you speak it ...


Mrs Gobbledygook

21 May 2007