Discussion about “to say”, “to tell” and “to speak”

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Steve and Jill discuss when to use “to say”, “to tell” and “to speak”.

Steve: Hi Jill.

Jill: Hi Steve.

Steve: How are you today?

Jill: Great thanks, how are you?

Steve: Good thanks.

I gather that we have had some listeners who have asked you for some help on some subjects having to do with the use of English.

What exactly do you have in mind?

Jill: Well, on the EnglishLingQ Forum a few people, in particular, have posted some topics that they would like us to talk about.

One post was from the user Vicki and she wanted us to speak about when we use “speak”, “tell”, “say”, just like we did on another podcast with “to look” and “to see” and “to watch”.

These words are very confusing I think to a lot of people, so maybe today we will start with that.

Steve: Alright. Now you don’t give me any warning here.

Maybe you have had time to think about it.

I mean, right off the bat, as we say in English, you know, the first thing that comes to mind is that we tell someone something, but we speak to someone.

We don’t tell to someone, so we always tell someone something.

Jill: Right or tell a tale, tell a story.

Steve: Tell a story, but we can also tell him about something.

Jill: Right.

Steve: We can tell him or her that, you know, her pants are dirty or something she might not be aware of, you know.

You’ve got a smudge on your blouse.

We tell people something, a story or some news.

We tell someone that either their house is burning or that, you know, Italy won the world cup of soccer or something, but always we tell someone we don’t tell to someone.

Jill: And we don’t say…we can say to someone.

Steve: We only say to someone.

Jill: Right. We can’t say we say someone.

Steve: No, exactly, and I think that is the first distinction that I think people have to focus on.

I often hear non-native speakers say “I told to him”.

Jill: Yes.

Steve: Or “he said me”. The key thing, I think the first thing, is I “say to” someone.

Jill: Right.

Steve: I don’t “say” someone I “say to” someone, but I “tell” someone.

Jill: Right.

Steve: Okay.

“Speak” is also I “speak to” someone”, but the “speak” is not about communicating any particular information it’s about the fact that you and someone else…your mouths are opening and closing and you’re making sound at each other.

Jill: Right, right.

Steve: So, it is not connected to a specific message.

Jill: Or you speak to somebody about something.

Steve: But when we tell someone the suggestion is that we’re delivering a message.

Jill: Right.

Steve: And when we say something to someone, again, it seems to be more a specific message.

Jill: Right.

Steve: Whereas, we “speak to” someone means we’re having a conversation.

Jill: Right.

Steve: Right. I don’t know if that’s helpful to people, because in other languages the words say and tell often are translated with the same word.

Jill: Right. That’s probably why so many people have problems.

Steve: Right. Let’s just look at it.

If say I want to tell you that, you know, you’re late I want to say to you that you’re late.

I mean they are kind of similar, but when we have a specific message to deliver we tend to use tell.

Or what…I don’t know.

Jill: It’s hard to explain the way you just used something so naturally when it’s your native language.

I think really the main thing is — what we said initially – you can’t say someone you have to say to someone, say something to someone, but you tell someone something.

Steve: But, if I say to you “tell me something” then it implies that I want a meaningful message from you.

If I say “say something” it almost just means make noise.

For example, if someone is unconscious, let’s say that you’re lying there unconscious, I come up and I slap your face and I say “Jill, say something!” But, I wouldn’t say tell me something.

Jill: Yeah, that’s true.

Steve: You know.

I might say “speak”, but I’m more likely to say “say something”.

Jill: I just had a thought and I’ve lost it now.

I was going to say that’s kind of a very specific scenario, because you could also say “say something” when you do want a real message.

For example, you tell somebody something, you say something to somebody and they just look at you with the blank stare on their face, so you might say, you know, say something, meaning give me some sort of reaction, respond in some manner to what I’ve just told you, so you could want a meaningful response if you say “say something”.

Steve: Another use of the word say or said, you know, the past tense of tell is told, in what’s known as reported speech, alright.

If we read a book and the detective says to the criminal, we don’t say the detective tells the criminal.

Well, we might, but the most often used term for reported speech is “said”.

You know, “What can I do for you?” said the shop owner.

“Whom do you want to speak to?” said the receptionist, not “told” the receptionist.

Jill: No.

Steve: I think one thing to think about is tell has to do with a tale, to some extent; there has to be a story.

We tell a tale.

Jill: Exactly.

Steve: We tell a tale.

We tell a story, whereas, saying is I think, in a sense, sort of a neutral word for the fact that someone is expressing themselves.

Of course, we always say this, save the word in LingQ.

Save “say” or “said” or “saying”, because they’re all going to be slightly different in terms of tense and in terms of how they’re used.

Jill: And save them also like as a phrase too.

“Said something to”…

Steve: Sure, they can save the phrase, but even saving the word will generate the phrase in LingQ.

Jill: Yeah, that’s right.

Steve: So, I think it’s just a matter of getting used to it, but I think the biggest thing of all, what I find jarring, is when I speak to non-native speakers and they say “I say him”, “I told to him”, that’s the biggest problem.

I think if people can get beyond that then they will get a more natural rhythm and they will start to be more sensitive to how those words are used.

I think the person Vicki who asked us, if she starts saving the word, if she’s a little sensitive to “I said to him”, but “I told him”, she’ll start noticing it and pretty soon she’ll start naturally using it correctly.

Jill: Right.

Steve: I think that’s more useful than us trying to come up with all the possible situations and contradictions and exceptions and so forth.

Jill: Exactly, I agree.

Steve: I don’t know if that helps, but that covers that subject I hope satisfactorily.

Thank you very much Jill.

Jill: Thank you.

Steve: Bye, bye.

Jill: Bye, bye.

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