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Say Vs. Tell & Other Speaking Verbs

January 21, 2016

English language learners often struggle with verbs about speaking. Say and tell have similar meanings, but their sentence patterns can be difficult for students to keep straight. Since these verbs don't often appear in textbooks, it's a good idea to present or review the patterns and punctuation of these verbs to learners of any level.

1. Say

Reported Speech

Say is followed by something, not someone.

Say Something: Say + (that) + SVO
  • She said that the meeting was at 9:00 am.
  • She said the meeting was at 9:00 am.
Say something to someone: Say + object thing + to + object person
  • The celebrity said hi to us.

Direct Speech

Say is very common in direct speech.

  • "Let me know," he said.
  • He said, "Let me know."
  • "Let me know," he said, "so that I can make plans."

2. Tell

Reported Speech

Tell is followed by someone, not something.

Tell someone something: Tell + object person + (that) + SVO
  • He told me that he loves me.
  • She told us she was ready to go.
Tell someone something: Tell + object person + to + base verb
  • They tell their son to do his homework every day.
  • She is telling them to get tickets right away.
Tell someone something: Tell + object person + (about/how/where etc.) + object thing/SVO
  • She told me about the accident.
  • He is telling us how to do it.
  • Did you tell them what to do?
  • She will tell them where the restaurant is.
Tell someone: Tell + object person
  • Did he tell you?
  • Yes, he told me.

Direct Speech

Tell is not common in direct speech, though it is possible.

  • "That was a good movie," he told me quietly.

3. Ask

Reported Speech

To express that someone is asking a question, we use the verb ask, followed by if, whether, for, about, or a question word.

  • She asked if she could borrow my pen.
  • She asked whether she could borrow my pen.
  • She asked for the time.
  • She asked about the weather.
  • She asked where the restaurant was.
  • She asked what my name was.

Direct Speech

  • She asked, "What's your name?"
  • "What's your name?" she asked.

4. Other Speaking Verbs

To change the meaning slightly or add variety to your speech or writing, other speaking verbs such as state, explain, report, add, yell, and shout can be used.

Reported Speech

  • He stated/explained/reported/added/yelled/shouted that the power was out.

Direct Speech

  • "The power is out," he stated/explained/reported/added/yelled/shouted.

5. Talk, Speak, and Discuss

To express what a conversation was about, we can use three common verbs in English: talk, speak, and discuss. These verbs are used in reported speech only (never in direct speech). Note that discuss must be followed directly by an object.

  • They talked about the problem.
  • They spoke about the problem.
  • They discussed the problem.
  • We talked for hours.
  • We spoke for hours.
  • We discussed the problem for hours.
  • They talked to each other.
  • They spoke to each other.
  • They discussed the problem with each other.

6. Practice: Say Vs. Tell

Write these sentences on the board, or have students listen and call out the answers. For more practice, have them write out sentences of their own for another student or pair to complete.


  1. The teacher (said / told) me to hand in my homework.
  2. My counselor (said / told) I need to start thinking about my future.
  3. Our manager (said / told) that the meeting was on Friday.
  4. Her coworker (said / told) her that her report was due.
  5. "Leave it by the door," he (said / told).


  1. told
  2. said
  3. said
  4. told
  5. said

For additional practice, try our Direct & Reported Speech lesson in our Grammar Practice Worksheets section.

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Comments (2)

Yrma Rubina castillo Salguero(Guest)

Thanks a lot. You are really helping me to improve this English language because I teach children, teenager and audult. I like teaching English. I am in Pisco City. I would like to improve the spoken production. Please send me something about it. God Bless you for ever.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I'm happy to hear it! Try our Direct and Indirect Speech grammar lesson for more practice with these verbs.
Also, the Ideas category on our blog has a lot of speaking activities to try!

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