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How To Use Say, Tell, Speak And Talk: Differences, Expressions, Idioms

Confused about when to use the words ‘say’, ‘tell’, ‘speak’ and ‘talk’ in English? No problem! This study guide will teach you the most common expressions and idioms to demonstrate the differences between say, tell, speak and talk with real examples. Ready? Let’s get started!

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WHAT YOU WILL LEARN:

Differences between say/tell/speak/talk
Common expressions
Idioms with say, tell, speak or talk
Practice exercises
 

Say, tell, speak or talk – what’s the difference?

Say, tell, speak and talk are four very similar words that can be difficult to use correctly in English! Mistakes are common when there are no exact equivalents in your native language, or when rules on usage differ. Let’s look at the differences between say, tell, speak and talk by explaining how each word is used separately.

How to use SAY

I say – He/She/It says – We/They say
I will say – I am saying – I said – I have said

When we use ‘say’, we do not use an object (e.g. me/them/you) immediately after the verb. The verb ‘say’ is used when we quote people directly and also when we give instructions. For example:

  • ‘Amelia said she would be back soon.’
  • ‘The weatherman said it would rain today.’
  • ‘I won’t say this again!  – Will you please get ready for school now?’

Say can also be used to express an opinion or thought, as in: ‘I say we should give each person twenty tickets each to sell.’

How to use TELL

I tell – She/He/It tells – They/We tell
I will tell – I am telling – I told – I have told

When we use ‘tell’, we also include the object (e.g. you/her/us) immediately after the verb. The verb ‘tell’ is used when we say something to someone, and is commonly used when giving an order or instruction. For example:

  • ‘I told my son to brush his teeth.’
  • ‘The teacher told the class to do their homework.’
  • ‘You forgot to tell me to bring my swimming costume!’

Sometimes ‘say’ and ‘tell’ can be used interchangeably to express the same meaning when information is being passed from one person to another.  In this case, the construction would be: ‘tell’ + object or ‘say’ + ‘to’ + object. For example:

  • ‘Laura told me that she would be late for work.’
  • ‘Laura said to me that she would be late for work.’

Learners of English often make mistakes like ‘He said me…’ or ‘She said me that…’. This is incorrect. Remember to include ‘to’ between ‘said’ and the object! Just as you would ‘send a letter TO someone’, you would also ‘say something TO someone’. The preposition ‘to’ shows the direction in which the information is going.

How to use SPEAK

I speak – She/He/It speaks – They/We speak
I will speak – I am speaking – I spoke – I have spoken

We use the verb ‘speak’ (instead of ‘talk’) when we are in a more formal situation and wish to emphasise that something is important. When ‘speak’ is used as a noun (speech) it also takes on a more formal tone that when we use ‘talk’ – i.e. ‘Give a speech’ is more formal than ‘give a talk’. For example:

  • ‘We need to speak about your attendance this term!’ (stricter than ‘talk about’)
  • ‘John will be speaking at an international conference next month.’ (more prestigious than ‘give a talk on…’)

We can also use ‘speak’ to describe verbal fluency or knowledge of languages, as in: ‘He speaks three languages fluently – German, French and Spanish.’. In this context, ‘speak’ simply means that the person knows the languages. It doesn’t only refer to spoken ability.

How to use TALK

I talk – She/He/It talks – They/We talk
I will talk – I am talking – I talked – I have talked

We use the verb ‘talk’ when we are in a more relaxed setting or when we are among friends in a conversational situation. You can think of ‘talk’ as a slightly more formal word for ‘chat’. For example:

  • ‘Sorry, who were you talking to before I interrupted?’
  • ‘I was talking with my mum the other day and we decided that…’
  • ‘I love chatting with my mates (friends) over a cuppa (cup of tea)!’ (very informal)

Often ‘speak’ and ‘talk’ can be used interchangeably to give the same meaning and there is no need to change the grammar of the sentence. For example:

  • ‘I will speak/talk with you about this more on Monday.’
  • ‘We can speak/talk about the new project next week.’
SayTellSpeakTalk
To speak about something , often reporting on what has been said.To deliver information to someone.To exchange information about something. (formal)To exchange information about something. (informal)
We do not include an object e.g. Rosie said she was free this afternoon.We include an object e.g. Rosie told me she was free this afternoon.Can be used to cover languages. E.g Georgie speaks three language fluently.Cannot be used to cover languages. E.g. Georgie talks three languages fluently.
Does not require a second person to engage with.Does not require a second person to engage with.Requires a second person to engage with.Requires a second person to engage with.
E.g. I said I wasn’t going swimming tonight.E.g. I told you before that I am not interested in you in that way.E.g. Let’s speak about the class rules again before we continue.E.g. We can talk about it more when you feel less angry.
Mostly interchangeable with tell.  The grammatical structure must be altered.Mostly interchangeable with say.  The grammatical structure must be altered.Mostly interchangeable with talk.  The grammatical structure needn’t be altered.Mostly interchangeable with speak.  The grammatical structure needn’t be altered.
E.g. Richard said (that) he would be late home tonight.E.g. Richard told me (that) he would be late home tonight.E.g. We will speak about the plans for our summer holiday when I next see you.E.g. We will talk about the plans for our summer holiday when I next see you.

 

Common English expressions with say, tell, speak or talk

Expressions with SAY

Say something (= Say something to someone)
‘You have to say something to Stuart about his poor work ethic!’

About to say (= to almost say something before you are stopped by something/someone)
‘I was about to say thank you, before you interrupted me.’

Nothing to say (= to not have anything to say about a topic or a person, can be used when there has been bad feeling around the topic.)
‘After Jane ignored my opinion, I have nothing to say to her about future events.’

Want to say (= to feel you would like to say something to someone, but perhaps are unsure about doing so)
‘I want to say something to Fiona about her bad temper, but I’m a little afraid of her!’

Need to say (= to have to say something to someone, can be used to ensure the person is listening properly, can be used to convey urgency or importance before saying what you have to say)
‘Please listen carefully! I need to say something very important.’

Hate to say (= to give over information when it isn’t something that the speaker wants to say or that the listener wants to hear.)
‘I hate to say it, but James isn’t very good at managing our committee funds. We may need to look at recruiting a new treasurer.’

Fair to say (= to say something that is reasonable and measured on a topic)
‘It is fair to say that we are all very pleased with your work this month.’

Going to say (= to be about to say something before being beaten to it by another speaker)
– ‘Shall we go to a pub for lunch today as the weather is so nice?
– ‘Great idea! I was just going to say that myself.’

Anything to say (= to enquire as to whether the person you are talking with has something to say on the topic)
‘Now we have covered the entire training guide, does anyone have anything to say on what we have learnt so far?’

Say no more (= used when the speaker no longer wishes to talk about a topic, often used to put an end to a difficult conversation and move forward)
‘I’m sure you know how disappointed I am that you have not completed your homework again this week.  Please finish your homework during break time and I will say no more about it.’

Say a few words (= a phrase used when you want to say something about someone/something, often used at the start of a short speech)
‘Before we sit down to enjoy the meal, I would like to say a few words about the bride and groom.’

Can say for sure/certain (= when the speaker is convinced that what they are saying is the truth)
‘I can say for sure that I saw Monica take money from the cash register and put it in her pocket’

Can’t say for sure/certain (= when the speaker is not convinced that what they are saying is the truth)
‘I can’t say for certain that Kieran helped Monica hide the money’

Might say (= when the speaker is not sure if they will say something or not in the future)
‘I might say something to my manager about the missing money, as I don’t want to be blamed for it.’

How can you say? (= when someone is in disbelief over something they have just heard)
How can you say such terrible things about your sister?’

People say (= to convey information about something which is commonly thought or said by a group of people, often used to spread rumours or untruths.)
People say if you break a mirror, you will get seven years of bad luck.’

say tell idioms

Dare say (= to say something is probable or likely)
‘I dare say Lianna will be at the party as she has had a lot to do with organising it.’

Daren’t say (= to hold back on saying something in case the listener is unhappy with what has been said)
‘I daren’t say anything to Kiara about her dress being too small in case she gets upset.’

Allowed to say (= to be permitted to say something)
‘The great thing about our work meetings is that even the junior members are allowed to say what they think.’

Begin by saying (= to say something to start off, often used when addressing a crowd)
‘I will begin by saying that I am very proud of the pupils’ progress over the last ten weeks.’

Ought to say (= to think you should say something)
‘I ought to say to my neighbour that I can hear his shouting through the walls.’

Never say (= to state something that you would never say, often in case of causing offense or upsetting someone)
‘I would never say this to Amelia as she is so enthusiastic, but she really is a terrible singer!’

Rather not say (= to say what you would prefer to say instead of something else, hide the truth)
‘I’d rather not say Amelia is a poor singer because I don’t want to hurt her feelings.’

Expressions with TELL

Tell on someone (= to say to someone – usually in authority – something about one of their peers that would displease them)
‘I’m telling on you to the teacher for tripping Callum up!’ (informal)

Tell off (= to express unhappiness at someone’s actions, punish verbally)
‘I told Charlotte off for throwing her rubbish on the ground’

Tell about (= to share information about something that has happened or something that will happen in the future)
‘I need to tell you about what happened to me at the gym last night…’

Tell a story (= to read or relay a book/tale to someone)
‘Lie down and get ready for bed, and I’ll tell you a story.’

Tell a lie (= to say something that is not true)
‘I told a lie when I said I was working. I just didn’t want to go for a run with you!’

Tell the truth (= to say something that is true)
‘Of course you can trust me – I always tell the truth!’

Tell the future (= to explain what will happen at a later date)
‘No one can tell the future because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.’

Tell the time (= to read the time on a clock/watch)
‘Could you tell me the time, please?’

Tell to do something (= to instruct someone to carry out an instruction)I told you to take the bins out.’

Tell how (= to instruct someone on the way they should carry out a task)
‘Nikki, please tell Cameron how to set up the cake display.’

I am telling you (= often used to capture the attention of the intended listener, can be used to reaffirm an instruction that has already been given)
I am telling you to make your bed before you start playing with your toys!’

Tell a secret (= to share something with someone that should be kept confidential)
‘Let me tell you a secret I heard about Ellie, but you mustn’t let anyone else know!’

Tell a joke (= to share a joke with someone)
‘I can tell you a joke if you want to hear one?’

Tell the difference (= to identify characteristics that differ between two or more things/people)
‘Can you tell the difference between the twins? Millie has blue eyes and Lilly has green eyes.’

Tell someone’s name (= to let someone know what a person is called)
‘Could you tell the class your name and where you are from?’

Tell someone’s fortune (= to predict what will happen in someone’s life, often using tarot cards of palm reading)
‘Show me the palm of your hand and I will tell you your fortune!’

Should tell (= to know it is best that you tell someone something)
‘You should tell the teacher that you struggled to understand the last lesson. Maybe she can go over the grammar rules again with you.’

Need to tell (= to have to say something to someone, can be used to ensure the person is listening properly, can be used to convey urgency or importance before stating what you have to say)
‘I need to tell you what happened last night and I need you to listen very carefully.’

Never tell (= to promise not to say anything about something that has happened)
‘I promise that I will never tell anyone your secret. It’s safe with me!’

About to tell (= to almost say something before you are stopped by something/someone)
‘I was about to tell you what happened, before you took that phone call.’

Tell tales (= to pass on information to get another person into trouble, not always true stories)
‘Stop telling tales on your little brother! I know it wasn’t him who broke the door.’

Expressions with SPEAK

Speak up (= to have to say something louder in order to be heard)
‘You need to speak up so your great grandma can hear you. She’s a bit deaf!’

Speak out (= to voice a fact or view even though it may cause trouble, raise issues)
‘We have to speak out about the unsafe conditions at work before someone gets hurt.’

Speak down to (= to say something to someone in a manner which is condescending)
‘I think she speaks down to me because I’m just a shop assistant and she’s a manager.’

Speak on (= to say something about a topic or subject, often in a formal setting)
‘I would like to speak on the topic of personal hygiene in class today.’

Speak about (= to say something on a topic or subject with someone, often in a more relaxed setting than ‘speak on’)
‘I’d like to speak about our fundraising efforts at the next committee meeting.’

Speak in (= can be used to define what language is being spoken)
‘Multilingual people can speak in many languages.’

Speak to (= to verbally communicate with someone, quite formal)
‘I’d like to speak to you about your plans to continue as company treasurer next year.’

Speak of (= an expression used when you don’t want to talk about an issue or topic again)
‘You’ve been punished enough for taking my car without asking. We won’t speak of it again.’

Speak for (= an expression used when someone is saying something on another’s behalf)
‘I speak for all of us when I say your performance must improve over the next term.’

Speak out of turn (= to offer your opinion when it is not needed, welcome, or deemed appropriate)
‘Forgive me for speaking out of turn, as I know I am only here to take notes on the meeting, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to run a larger focus group before taking the product to market?’

Speak with (= to talk to someone about a topic, consult or get advice)
‘I’ll need to speak with my senior advisor before I can authorise a payment for such a large sum.’

Speaking terms (= in communication, being amicable, communicating but in a minimal way due to dislike or following an argument)
‘They haven’t been on speaking terms since John went for dinner with his ex-wife.’

So to speak (= used when quoting a figure of speech or describing something in an abstract way)
‘In John’s relationship with his wife she wears the trousers, so to speak.’

Speak the same language (= used when talking about two or more people or countries speaking the same language, have a good understanding or rapport)
‘People speak the same language in Portugal and Brazil, but with slight differences.’
‘When it comes to shopping, Jane and I speak the same language!’

Speak openly (= to talk about something without fear of what others may think, can often be on sensitive topics)
‘Liz speaks openly about her experiences as a single parent in the hope that she can inspire others.’

Speak one’s mind (= to say what you are thinking about, even if others may not want to hear it)
‘I know something has been troubling you. If you speak your mind, maybe I can help.’

Be spoken for (= to describe something/someone that has already been claimed by someone else)
‘Unfortunately, most of the flats in the new building have already been spoken for.’

Speak well of (= to have pleasant things to say about someone or something)
‘Your new supervisor speaks well of you.’

Speak ill of (= to have unpleasant things to say about someone or something)
‘You always speak ill of your father. Why is that?’

Speak up for (= to say something on someone’s behalf who may not have the authority to speak themselves or may feel afraid or shy to do so)
‘Henry is such a kind boy; he always speaks up for his classmate John, who has trouble with bullies.’

Speak volumes (= used to emphasise the importance of ones actions/inactions or words/lack of words)
‘The fact that the boss refuses to address the smoking policy speaks volumes about his lack of leadership.’

Speak highly of someone/something (= used when someone says very good things about someone or something)
‘The head teacher speaks highly of the work you have done as a volunteer at the school.

Expressions with TALK

Talk up (= used when someone praises someone/something, perhaps to promote)
‘I can’t talk up this new course book enough! It’s really interesting and has lots of great examples.’

speak vs. talk

Talk down (= used when someone is diminishing something they or someone else has done in fear of looking like they are showing off)
‘Don’t talk down the efforts you put into your essay. You should be very proud of the hard work you have put it.’

Talk out of (= used when you are trying to convince someone to change their mind about a bad idea they have)
‘I have tried to talk him out of skydiving, but he insists he wants to do it!’

Talk back (= to reply in a rude manner, often to voice opposition or question an order)
‘Don’t talk back to your mother! She has already told you to clean your room.’

Talk over (= to interrupt or speak when someone else is talking)
‘Please don’t talk over me! You’ll get your chance to speak next.’

Talk about (= to say something about something/someone)
‘We can talk about that in person at the next meeting’

Talk down to (= to say something to someone in a manner which is condescending)
‘She talks down to me because she thinks I don’t understand English very well.’

Talk to (= to say something to someone)
‘I will talk to you after class, but just now I am listening to the teacher.’

Talk on (= to talk about a certain subject or topic)
‘After my speech about sustainability, Arthur will talk on the ways we can achieve this in our daily lives.’

Talk with (= to have a conversation with someone about something/someone)
‘I need to talk with you about our latest essay. Are you finding it as difficult as I am?’

Talk around (= to indirectly talk about an issue that may be sensitive without addressing it directly)
‘At the meeting they talked around the issue of missing finances, but nothing was resolved.’

 

Idioms with say, tell, speak or talk

Idioms with SAY 

Wouldn’t say boo to a goose (= used to describe someone who is very shy or timid)
‘Anne is very reserved and keeps to herself. She wouldn’t say boo to a goose!’

say tell speak talk difeeeece

Do as I say, not as I do (= when someone has inconsistencies with their words and actions pointed out, often said by someone in authority)
‘It doesn’t matter if I went backpacking when I was your age. You’re not going! You will do as I say, not as I do.’

Does what it says on the tin (= used to imply that the information given on a product or situation is exactly as it seems)
‘This radiator paint does exactly what it says on the tin.’

Can’t say fairer than that (= used when a solution to a disagreement has been found that should suit both parties)
‘If you are going to take three cigarette breaks a day, then I expect you to arrive at work fifteen minutes early. You can’t say fairer than that.’

Idioms with TELL 

Time will tell (= used when the outcome of an issue will not be known for a period of time)
‘Who knows if Sarah will be happier with Steve? Only time will tell!’

Tell someone where to get off (= angrily dismiss or rebuke someone)
‘If Rob cancels your next date, you should tell him where to get off!’

Tell it how it is (= to state something directly or bluntly)
‘Susan is very passionate about human rights issues. She always tells it how it is.’

Live to tell the tale (= used when recounting a dangerous story that all turned out well in the end)
‘My dad spent the war in a concentration camp, but lived to tell the tale.’

You can’t tell a book by its cover (= used to express the idea that it isn’t possible to judge someone or something just based on superficial features or initial impressions)
‘I was surprised that Edward was so laid back at the party because he always looks so formal. Just goes to show you can’t tell a book by its cover!’

Idioms with SPEAK

Speak of the devil (= the shorter, more commonly used form of the idiom ‘speak of the devil and he shall appear’, used when someone unexpectedly appears when or shortly after people have been talking about them)
‘Hi Kirsty! Speak of the devil! Mary and I were just talking about you.’

Actions speak louder than words (= used to when you don’t entirely believe what a person is saying and are waiting for further evidence through actions)
‘He’s promised not to be back late after work tonight, but he’s said that plenty of times before and hasn’t. I think actions speak louder than words!’

Don’t speak too soon (= used when someone promises something prematurely that may not then happen)
‘Our team have almost won the league with three games to go, but don’t speak too soon!’

Speak a mile a minute (= used to describe when someone speaks very fast, often so fast it is difficult to understand)
‘June was so excited to tell us her news that she was speaking a mile a minute.’

Idioms with TALK

Talk in riddles (= to speak in a confusing manner, sometimes intentionally so you don’t understand the meaning)
‘Cassie often talks in riddles and I walk away without really understanding what has been said.’

All talk and no trousers (= a phrase used to describe when someone talks a lot about doing something but doesn’t take any or as much action as they say they would)
‘Craig spoke for a long time about his plans to go backpacking, yet he is still here two years later! I get the impression he is all talk and no trousers.’

how to use say tell speak talk

Talk the hind legs off a donkey (= used to describe someone who talks a lot about a topic, can be about boring chatterbox or windbag)
‘Let’s cross the street before Betty sees us! We have to get to the train station on time and she’ll make us late. She really can talk the hind legs off a donkey!’

Money talks (= used to describe the influence money can have over someone’s decision-making process and achieve a desirable outcome for the person with the most money)
‘I know our business plan is better than theirs, but our budget is much smaller, and we all know money talks.’

Sweet talk (= describes a way of using flattery to convince someone to do something your way)
‘Melissa can usually sweet talk Mike into getting her own way. He finds it difficult to say no to someone he likes.’

 

Practice exercises: differences between say, tell, speak and talk

Exercise A

Insert the words say/tell/speak/talk into the blank spaces in the sentences below. Remember to use the correct form of the verb to match the context.

  1. Can you remember what I ________ to you about chewing gum in class?
  2. Let me ________ you again in case you didn’t hear the first time.
  3. John, I’d like to ______ with you tomorrow about the upcoming presentation.
  4. It’ll be very formal and you’ll be __________ in front of 2,000 people.
  5. Could you ______ Lisa that I need to see her in my office please?
  6. What did you ______ to Lisa? She seemed rather embarrassed.
  7. If you’re upset, you can _______ to me (about your problems) anytime.
  8. Paolo ________ to the group – first in English, then in Italian.
  9. We have both tried to ______ Derek out of quitting his job, but he insists he’s doing the right thing.
  10. Could you please _______ me the deadline for my visa application?
Exercise B

Use a suitable idiom with ‘tell’ in each of the blank spaces below.

  1. My neighbour got bitten by a shark while on holiday, but he __________.
  2. I don’t think their relationship will last, but I guess __________.
  3. You __________! Steve may look stupid, but he’d got a PhD in Astro Physics!
  4. You need to be honest with your boss about the problems at work. Just __________!
  5. John said I had ugly legs, so I __________!
Check your answers:

Exercise A: 1. Said, 2. Tell, 3. Speak/Talk, 4. Speaking, 5.Tell, 6. Say, 7. Talk, 8. Spoke, 9. Talk 10. Tell.

Exercise B: 1. lived to tell the tale, 2. time will tell, 3. can’t tell a book by its cover, 4. tell it how it is, 5. told him where to get off.

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Written by
Katie Currie
Staff Writer
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