More on Say, tell, speak, talk

 

Summary of distinctions


SAY:

Say usually takes a direct object. The direct object may be

  (1)

the actual words uttered (direct speech): “Hello” or “Give me back my cookie!!”

  (2)

a word such as something, nothing, anything, much, a lot:

Shh! He’s saying something. I want to hear him!
The weather forecast doesn’t say anything about rain this afternoon
Did the doctor say much about your weight gain?

  (3)

a that-clause (noun clause):

Felicity has never really said that she truly loves me
John said that he had received some good news.

  (4)

a wh-noun clause (especially in negative and questions):

Did the postman say where we should pick up the parcel?
Mrs. Johnson didn’t say when she would return.

Say can also occur with a to- infinitive phrase that is similar to an imperative:

My father always said to put your best foot forward
My doctor ‘s answering service says to call back in an hour.

Say can be followed by the adverb so:

Why should you stop seeing him? Because I said so!

Say is never followed directly by an indirect object pronoun. This is perhaps the most common difficulty students have with say. If there is an indirect object, it must be a “to” indirect object

  CORRECT: You said something to me about going skiing this weekend, remember?
  NOT CORRECT:  

You said me something about going skiing this weekend, remember?

  CORRECT:

He said “Good morning” to me.

 

NOT CORRECT:  

He said me “Good morning.”

If the speaker wants to use say with an indirect object, which is rare, the preposition to must be used. This use of “say to somebody” occurs only with long clauses beginning with that:

  CORRECT: He said to me that he was sorry, and that he regretted his rashness.
  NOT CORRECT:  

He said me that he was sorry.

  CORRECT:

I said to my boss that I needed an
assistant, and the sooner the better.

 

NOT CORRECT:  

I said my boss that I needed an assistant, and the sooner the better.

Much more common than say, however, in this kind of utterance—when you want to mention the person or persons you are addressing the words to—is the verb tell.

TELL:

Tell almost always occurs with an indirect object:

Please tell me the story of your life.
Nobody told Jim about the meeting – that’s why he wasn’t there.

Tell does, however, occur without an indirect object and with a limited number of direct objects in expressions such as tell a lie, tell a story, tell the truth, tell secrets:

She never tells the same story twice
I’ve never been any good at telling lies.

Tell may occur without an overt (visible) indirect object in a certain kind of context—if the context indicates that there is an audience—but only with wh-noun clauses or phrases:

The speaker told why these facts hadn’t come to light before.
I was spellbound as she told how she first decided to become a snake charmer.

Tell must have an overt indirect object in all other contexts, that is, a word that refers to a person and which comes directly after it:

I want to tell YOU how much I appreciate your kindness.
Please don't tell JOHNNY about this.

If the direct object is a that-noun clause, it must also have an indirect object:

They told ME that I'd better arrive early

Will you please tell THOSE KIDS that they're keeping me awake!

Tell may also occur with an animate direct object ("Jean" and "everyone" below) and a to-infinitive complement ("to bring" and "to come" below); this construction has an imperative meaning:

Tell Jean to bring the car to the side entrance.
Tell everyone to come to dinner right away.

SPEAK

Speak can take a direct object, but it does so rarely. Again, it may be followed by a limited number of nouns, including expressions such as speak the truth and speak kind words, as well as speak (names of languages).

Speak is used with the names and numbers of languages:

He's French-Canadian, but he speaks English with a Portuguese accent.

I speak seven languages, but only two fluently.

Speak is used with direct objects in certain idioms, such as speak a word and speak one's mind:

He didn't speak a word all evening.
She doesn't hesitate to speak her mind.

Speak usually does not take a direct object, however, with expressions other than those above. It does, though, take a to- indirect object:

My advisor spoke TO ME at length about graduate school programs.
You ought to speak TO HIM about applying for a scholarship.

Speak with a plural subject is used in formal style to mean "converse":

The ambassador and I spoke of the need to improve the farmers' living conditions
They spoke of love, but never about marriage.

TALK: Talk is very general in meaning. It means "to use spoken language to express oneself." Most often, it does not have a direct object. It can be used to describe a one-way communication or a two-way conversation.

My aunt talked nonstop for an hour. I couldn't get a word in edgewise
Our guests talked so long among themselves that they didn't notice that we were falling asleep
The baby doesn't talk yet—he's only eight months old.

Talk does occur in certain expressions with a direct object, but these are idiomatic:

My brother loves to talk shop/ talk politics/ talk sports
It's time to talk turkey!

Talk can take a to-indirect object, but not a direct object (except in special idioms):

Where's your father? I need to talk to him immediately.
I can't give you a discount on this. You'll have to talk to the manager.

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