Even the most advanced English students have trouble with this one! The problem is that sometimes we can use either one and it doesn't matter, and other times, there is only one correct way. Here is a short, but hopefully helpful explanation:
Say = to express something in words. This is used when:
(1) we do not state the person who we are speaking to.
Ex. I said I would be there tomorrow. She said no. Why do you always say that? What did you say?
NOT: I said
him I would be there tomorrow.
(2) we are introducing a direct quote (usually in writing).
Ex. The police officer said, "I need to see your license and registration."
(3) we do state the person we are speaking to, but in this case, we have to use "say to"
Ex. I always say to my students that this is a difficult topic.
(note that this is not very common; we would usually use tell instead)
Tell = to express something to someone or inform someone about something. NOTE: The person we are telling must be clearly stated in the sentence.*
(1) This often has the idea of giving and receiving information, rather than just a verbal expression.
Ex. I told my friend I would be there tomorrow. She always tells me her opinion.
(2) to give orders or instructions to someone. Note that in this context, "tell" is always used with the infinitive.
Ex. The teacher told the students to take out their books.
The doctor told me to get some rest.
I told my children to clean their room.
*However, when talking about truth, lies, and stories, there is an exception.
Ex. Don't tell lies. He always tells the truth. She tells great stories.
I would like to say thank you for reading about this topic! Please tell me in the comments if you have a sentence that you are not sure if you should use "say" or "tell" and I will try to answer your question quickly.
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Here are some practice exercises using say and tell:
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Question 1 of 6
My friend called and _________ me a new restaurant had just opened downtown.Correct
Question 2 of 6
I _________ , “Let’s go down and check it out now because I’m hungry.”Correct
Question 3 of 6
He __________ it was a great idea.Correct
Question 4 of 6
Then he _______ me he could meet me there in 15 minutes.Correct
Question 5 of 6
When we got to the restaurant, it was very busy, so the host took our names and _______ wait until they called us.Correct
Question 6 of 6
I asked how long the wait would be, and he ________ that it would be about 15 minutes.Correct