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It can be confusing for an Italian mother tongue to know when to use the verb “to say” or when it’s better to use “to tell” in a sentence. In Italian they kind of mean the same thing, don’t they? They would both translate roughly to the Italian verb “Dire”.

One can argue that to tell would also translate to raccontare, indicare, informare, comunicare, narrare, riferire, rivelare, divulgere, … and so on. So how do you know which meaning it actually takes?

Well… you don’t.

Not that way at least… If you try to translate any language word for word, you’ll miss the point. So how do you know if you are saying or telling in your sentence?

Just because they can both translate to “dire” in Italian does not mean they are the same at all. Generally speaking, they have very different usage and fortunately there is a little rule we can follow. Remember: -You SAY something and you TELL someone something.

To tell needs a person to speak to… sort of.

Not to confuse you any further but to say something is to express a communication. While to tell is used to communicate to someone. So your sentence with the verb “to tell” will need an indirect object. For example: Tell me something about yourself.

In order to introduce an indirect object when using the verb “to say” we have to add the preposition “to”. An example of this could be: -I will say something to him-.

We’ve all heard some idioms with say and tell and probably didn’t realize it. Even if you’re not a mother tongue English speaker, it might be possible for you to recognize many of these: -Say hello. – Say a prayer.- Say no more.- Say sorry.- Say thank you. – Tell her the truth.- Tell me a secret.- Tell us a story. – Tell him the time. – Tell him the way.

If you try to exchange them, the sentence would not make sense.

As you know, it isn’t always this easy. Say and tell can be used in both direct speech and indirect speech. In direct speech “to tell” is used to give instructions or information. -He told her: “Open the door.”- might be a good example of to tell in direct speech. You can say: -He told her to open the door- and that would make it indirect speech. All we did there was turn the verb “open” into an infinitive.

As a mother tongue English speaker, whenever I think about explaining the concept of “say” and “tell”, I just want to cringe. It really is much easier than the explanation leads on, but…

Once you get the hang of it, you will know when something is said or something is told…

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