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.
Say is followed by something, not someone.
|Say Something:||Say + (that) + SVO|
|Say something to someone:||Say + object thing + to + object person|
Say is very common in direct speech.
Tell is followed by someone, not something.
|Tell someone something:||Tell + object person + (that) + SVO|
|Tell someone something:||Tell + object person + to + base verb|
|Tell someone something:||Tell + object person + (about/how/where etc.) + object thing/SVO|
|Tell someone:||Tell + object person|
Tell is not common in direct speech, though it is possible.
- “That was a good movie,” he told me quietly.
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.
- 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.
- He stated/explained/reported/added/yelled/shouted that the power was out.
- “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.
- The teacher (said / told) me to hand in my homework.
- My counselor (said / told) I need to start thinking about my future.
- Our manager (said / told) that the meeting was on Friday.
- Her coworker (said / told) her that her report was due.
- “Leave it by the door,” he (said / told).
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