Say, tell, speak and talk. Four very similar words in English. When should we use them? what words can come after them? Is there even any difference? Let’s have a look.
We use “say” to quote either directly or indirectly. Quoting directly means we will use quotation marks (“”) and is used to say what someone said exactly. Indirect quoting means we are conveying the meaning of what someone said even if it isn’t exact. Here are some examples with direct quotes:
He said “Hello.”
She said “It is a nice day.”
I said “Don’t do that.”
Here are some examples of indirect quotes (notice we don’t use quotation marks):
I said it was good.
They said they wouldn’t do it again.
She said she would go to town.
Finally it’s important to note that we can use an object but it can never come after “say“, we must also use the preposition “to” before the object:
I said him hello.
I said hello to him.
With “tell” we must always use an object. We can use this in two ways; We can use this to talk about the giving of information:
I told you about it already.
He told her the information.
Can you tell me?
Notice how the object doesn’t take the preposition “to” before it?
I told to him.
I told him.
We can also use “tell” with commands by adding to-infinitives:
I told you to clean your room.
He told her not to go.
Did you tell him to do his homework?
We can use “speak” to express talking in general (without details). It can be somewhat formal and can be used with or without an object:
I want to speak.
Can I speak to you?
Who are you speaking to?
We also use “speak” when we talk about ability:
I speak English well.
Do you speak Japanese?
She speaks Italian.
“Talk” is similar to “speak” except it can be a little more casual.
I’d like to talk with you.
Shall we talk to them?
Who is she talking to?
It’s important to note that we can’t use “talk” when describing language ability.
I can talk French.
I can speak French.
It’s also worth mentioning that we can use “chat” in a similar way to “talk” and it is even more casual.
Can we chat for a bit?
I chatted to her yesterday.
Did you chat to him?
We can use “about” with all four verbs (Say, Tell, Speak, Talk). The way we use it does change slightly with each though so be careful.
With “say” we can’t use “about” immediately afterwards, instead we can add words like “something” or “a few things” first:
I need to say about my problem.
I need to say something about my problem.
I need to say a few things about my problem.
With “tell” we have to put “about” after the object.
I told him about us.
They were told about the incident.
I was told about the party.
We can use “about” directly after “speak“. When we have an object then we can use “about” after the object.
I would like to speak to my colleague about this.
I would like to speak about this.
I was spoken to about this.
We wouldn’t use this when expressing language ability. If we used this structure then it would mean something different:
I speak German. (I have the ability to use the German language.)
I speak about German. (The topic of the conversation is German.)
Again, “talk” is used in a similar way to “speak” but can be a little more casual.
Let’s talk to Jim about football.
Do you always talk about the weather?
I will talk about climate change.
Say Tell Speak Talk Quiz
Test what you remember with the quiz below:
Say Tell Speak Talk Practice
- Create 3 sentences using the word “say“.
- Create 3 sentences using the word “tell“.
- Create 3 sentences using the word “speak“.
- Create 3 sentences using the word “talk“.