Summary of distinctions
Say usually takes a direct object. The direct object
the actual words uttered (direct speech): “Hello”
or “Give me back my cookie!!”
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
a that-clause (noun clause):
Felicity has never really said that she truly loves
John said that he had received some good news.
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
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”
|| You said something to
me about going skiing this weekend, remember?
said me something about going skiing
this weekend, remember?
He said “Good morning”
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:
|| He said to me that he was
sorry, and that he regretted his rashness.
said me that he was sorry.
I said to my boss that I needed an
assistant, and the sooner the better.
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 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
The speaker told why these facts hadn’t come to
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
I want to tell YOU how much I appreciate
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
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 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-
My advisor spoke TO ME at length about graduate
You ought to speak TO HIM about applying for
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
Talk does occur in certain expressions with a direct
object, but these are idiomatic:
My brother loves to talk shop/ talk politics/
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
I can't give you a discount on this. You'll have to talk to
Back to Say, tell, speak, talk