Tell and Say and Speak vs Talk: How to use them correctly

Tell, Say, Speak and Talk are English verbs that have ESL learners mixed up all the time. While these verbs are generally similar to one another, the way we use them in the language is different. For instance, the problem of how to use them correctly is a frequently asked question by learners at QQEnglish.

If you are confused too, we’ll this article might just be helpful to you. This time, we are going to learn how to use tell, say, speak, and talk correctly. Simple as this may sound, you gotta be careful in understanding the rule to avoid committing the same mistake next time.

Are you ready to find out the difference? Let’s get started!

tell and say

When to use Tell

In English, we commonly use tell when giving an order or instruction. When we use ‘tell’, we include the object (e.g. you/her/us) immediately after the verb.

For example:

She told her mother to buy her an extra pair of shoes.

The professor told his students to focus their attention on the class.

I forgot to tell them I will be absent today.

Grammatically, ‘say’ and ‘tell’ can be used interchangeably to express the same meaning when information is being passed from one person to another. Here, the construction would be: ‘tell’ + object or ‘say’ + ‘to’ + object.

For example:

Mary told me she would not join the trip.

Mary said to me she would not join the trip.

tell and say

When to use Say

When we use ‘say’, the use of an object (e.g. me/them/you) immediately after the verb is NO LONGER NEEDED. The verb ‘say’ is used when we quote people directly and also when we give instructions.

For example:

Paul said he is arriving in 10 minutes.

The news said it would rain today.

He never said thank you after receiving the gift. Such an ungrateful woman.

Say can also express an opinion or thought, as in: ‘I say we should go to the beach and seize the day.

tell and say

When to use Speak

We use the verb ‘speak’ (instead of ‘talk’) when we are in a more formal situation and wish to emphasize that something is important. Moreover, as a noun, ‘speak’ also takes on a more formal tone than using ‘talk’ – i.e. ‘Give a speech’ is more formal than ‘give a talk’.

For example:

You need to speak about your failure in the recent project! (stricter than ‘talk about’)

Angelina Jolie will be speaking at the UN conference next month. (more prestigious than ‘give a talk on…’)

Besides, the verb speak is also used to describe verbal fluency or knowledge of languages.

For example:

‘She speaks three languages fluently–Chinese, Japanese, and English.’

In the sample sentence, the verb ‘speak’ means that she is fluent in three languages. It refers not only to spoken ability.

tell and say

When to use Talk

In English, ‘talk’ is a slightly more formal word for ‘chat’. Clearly, we use the verb ‘talk’ when we are in a more relaxed setting or when we are among friends in a conversational situation.

For example:

Can I talk to you about the next week’s event?

We were talking to each other over the phone last night when the power suddenly went off.

‘I love chatting with my friends over a bucket of cold beer!’ (very informal)

Sometimes, ‘speak’ and ‘talk’ can be used interchangeably to give the same meaning, and there is no need to change the grammar of the sentence.

For example:

‘I will speak/talk with you about our project tomorrow.’

‘We can speak/talk about the agenda later this afternoon.’

When to use TalkCommon English expressions with say, tell, speak or talk

Expressions with SAY

Say something (= Say something to someone)

For example:

John has been always absent since last month? Should I talk to him and say something about his poor attendance record?
I need to say something to you about your behavior last night.

About to say (= to almost say something before you are stopped by something/someone)

For example:

She was about to say good night before you interrupted her and asked her to eat ice cream with you.
I was about to say I love you to him when he suddenly kissed me.

Nothing to say (= to not have anything to say about a topic or a person, can be used when there has been bad feeling around the topic.)

For example:

You already said everything. I have nothing left to say anymore.
After we ended our relationship, I have nothing to say to him about his future events.

Need to say (= we use this to have to say something to someone, to ensure the person is listening properly, to convey urgency or importance before saying what you have to say)

For example:

I can’t hold it anymore but I think I’m in love with him.

Hate to say (= to give over information when it isn’t something that the speaker wants to say or that the listener wants to hear)

For example:

I hate to say it, but she is not the best fit for this job. Should we let her pass the training?
She hates to say this, but her relationship with John is over.

Fair to say (= to say something that is reasonable and measured on a topic)

For example:

It’s fair to say that Mary deserves to win the contest.
It’s fair to say that I’m very impressed with your work performance this week.

Say no more (= used when the speaker no longer wishes to talk about a topic, often used to put an end to a hard conversation and move forward)

For example:

I am so pissed off about the poor presentation you had during the meeting. Please improve your work and make it better, and I’ll say no more about it.

Say a few words (= a phrase used when you want to say something about someone/something, often used at the start of a brief speech)

For example:

Before we end the program, I’d like to say a few words for our hospitable hosts tonight.
Before we sit down to enjoy the meal, I would like to say a few words about the bride and groom.

How can you say? (= when someone is in disbelief over something they have just heard)

For example:

How can you say such terrible things about your very own mother?

People say (= to convey information about something which is thought commonly or said by a group of people, often used to spread rumors or untruths.)

For example:

People say they associate black cats with bad luck.
What do people say about the Halloween folk legends in your town?

Expressions with TELL

Tell about (= to share information about something that has happened or something that will happen in the future)

For example:

Can you tell me about your vacation in Japan last week?
I need to tell you about what happened at the party last night.

Tell a story (= to read or relay a book/tale to someone)

For example:

Let me tell you a story about Romeo and Juliet.
My teacher told a story about his near-death experience last month during his vacation.

Tell a lie (= to say something that is not true)

For example:

I love the way you tell a lie.
She told a lie when she said she’s done with her project. The truth is, she has not started it yet.

Tell the truth (= to say something that is true)

For example:

The police asked the criminal to tell the truth during the investigation.
Tell me the truth! Who stole my purse?

Tell the time (= to read the time on a clock/watch)

For example:

Could you tell me the time, please?

Tell a secret (= to share something with someone that should be kept confidential)

For example:

I’m going to tell you a secret but promise me you keep it to yourself.
Please don’t tell the secret to anyone. It’s confidential.

Tell a joke (= to share a joke with someone)

For example:

She’s very good at telling a joke.
She can tell a joke that would make you laugh out loud.

Tell the difference (= to identify characteristics that differ between two or more things/people)

For example:

Can you tell the difference between orange and tangerine?
I can’t tell the difference between they’re and their in spoken English.

Tell tales (= to pass on information to get another person into trouble, not always true stories)

For example:

Stop telling tales on Lily! I know it wasn’t her who stole the necklace.

Expressions with SPEAK

Speak up (= to have to say something louder in order to be heard)

For example:

Can you please speak up? I can hardly hear you.
When speaking publicly, it’s very important to speak up or use a microphone so that our listeners can hear us.

Speak on (= to say something about a topic or subject, often in a formal setting)

For example:

I spoke on the topic about the importance of English in class yesterday.
Let’s speak on the success of Philippine tourism for tomorrow’s lesson.

Speak about (= to say something on a topic or subject with someone, often in a more relaxed setting than ‘speak on’)

For example:

Shall we speak about the improvements of the project we’re launching next month?
Today, I’d like to speak out about the benefits of learning IELTS in the Philippines.

Speak to (= to communicate with someone verbally, quite formal)

For example:

She spoke to me about the project proposal I made yesterday.
May I speak to you about your plans of resigning from the company next week?

Speak for (= an expression used when someone is saying something on another’s behalf)

For example:

I speak for the company to congratulate you on a job well done!
He spoke for his wife during the ceremony, provided that his wife had a fever yesterday.

Speak with (= to talk to someone about a topic, consult or get advice)

For example:

I need to speak with you about what happened this morning.
We need to speak with the manager first before we can start planning for the event.

So to speak (= used when quoting a figure of speech or describing something abstractly)

For example:

She will tell you what is going on, but only because you are already family, so to speak.
My sister and I are not allowed to go out with our friends. Our parents always sit on our heads, so to speak.

Speak ill of (= to have unpleasant things to say about someone or something)

For example:

I can’t stop but speak ill of her. I just hate her so much.
Why do you always speak ill of your sister? Do you really dislike each other?

Speak up for (= to say something on someone’s behalf who may not have the authority to speak themselves or may feel afraid or shy to do so)

For example:

As humans, we need to know our rights and speak up for those who are discriminated against and abused.
Mary is such a helpful woman; she always speaks up for her friends, who always get bullied.

Speak highly of someone/something (= used when someone says wonderful things about someone or something)

For example:

My boss always speaks highly of me in the office and I couldn’t be any prouder.
Her teacher speaks highly of her performance in the class.

Expressions with TALK

Talk up (= used when someone praises someone/something, perhaps to promote)

For example:

The students can’t talk up about their new class adviser. Her teaching strategy is so remarkable.

Talk down (= used when someone is diminishing something they or someone else has done in fear of looking like they are showing off)

For example:

You can’t talk down your efforts for this project. It will not be successful in your participation.

Talk out of (= used when you are trying to convince someone to change their mind about a bad idea they have)

For example:

He talked her out of quitting school.

Talk back (= to reply rudely, often to voice opposition or question an order)

For example:

It’s vulgar to talk back to people older than you.

Talk over (= to interrupt or speak when someone else is talking)

For example:

I hate it when someone talks over me while I’m speaking. I think he/she should wait for her turn to speak.

Talk about (= to say something about something/someone)

For example:

We can talk about this project in our next session.
Can we talk about this topic next time?

Talk down to (= to say something to someone in a manner which is condescending)

For example:

Sometimes, rich people talk down to poor people because they think they are superior to others.
He talks down to me maybe because is the manager and I’m just a normal staff.

Talk to (= to say something to someone)

For example:

I am going to talk to my boss after the meeting about this problem.

Talk on (= to talk about a certain subject or topic)

For example:

After their talk about learning English in the Philippines, my team will also talk on getting visas, accommodation, etc.

Talk with (= to have a conversation with someone about something/someone)

For example:

Lisa needs to talk with Sheila to complete their plans for the party.

Talk around (= to talk indirectly about an issue that may be sensitive without addressing it directly)

For example:

They’ve been talking around the real issue rather than addressing it directly.

In the Nutshell

In conclusion, spotting the difference between the verbs tell, say, speak and talk is not that very difficult at all. But somehow, all you need to do is to just follow the rule. And I’m sure that when you remember the difference, using them correctly will just be a piece of cake.

With all the details above, will you still mix up, tell, say, speak, and talk when using them?

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