Say or tell?

When should we use say or tell? We need to keep a couple of rules in mind when deciding whether to use say or tell. Let’s have a look at some examples…

He said me he was busy.


First of all, if we can’t say ‘he said me‘, how should we say it? There are actually two ways:

He told me he was busy.

He said he was busy.

So, what’s the difference?


Say is usually used without a personal object (also known as an indirect object), which means we usually don’t use it with the words me, you, her, him, it, us, or them.

     He said that he was busy. (not he said me that he was busy)

     He said that he would be late. (not she said me that she would be late)

However, we can use say with a personal object by adding to:

     And then he said to me, ‘I can’t text, I’m busy.’ (not and then he said me, ‘I can’t text, I’m busy.’)


Tell is used to mean instruct or inform. We don’t use tell with greetings or questions. In such cases, we use say:

     She said, ‘Good evening.’ (not She told them, ‘Good evening.’)

     ‘What’s up?’ I said. (not ‘What’s up?’ I told her.)

When we use tell, we usually mention the person being spoken to or addressed.  This means we need to use personal objects like me, her, him, and so on.

     He told me that he was busy. (not He told that he was busy.)

     He told me that he would be late. (not She told that she would be late.)

Note: you can omit that in such sentences – he told me he was busy.

We can also use tell with some expressions without using a personal object. Here are some common examples:

     Tell a story, tell the truth, tell a lie, tell a joke

     Do you think he’s telling the truth, or is he just playing video games? (not saying the truth.)

Tell can also be used with an object and an infinitive to mean order or instruct:

     He told her to leave him alone.

     She told him to stop playing.

Direct Speech

Direct speech is used to quote or repeat something in the same way it was said. We usually use say with direct speech:

     ‘Someone ate my chocolate,’ she said.

     ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said.

Indirect Speech

Indirect speech (also known as reported speech) is used to report or say what someone said. We also change the tense of the words we’re reporting to show that something was said in the past.

     ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said. = direct speech

     He said he didn’t know what she was talking about. = indirect speech

We can use tell in indirect speech when we want to mention who was being spoken to. With tell, we need to use an indirect object.  On the other hand, we can use say if we don’t include an indirect object. Compare these two sentences:

     He told her he didn’t know what she was talking about. (her = indirect object)

     He said he didn’t know what she was talking about.

Well, that’s it! Simply put, we say something or say something to someone, and we tell someone something.