Say, Tell, Speak, and Talk – What’s the difference?

The verbs  say, tell, speak, and talk can be confusing to English learners. The meanings are similar, but we use them in different ways, so it is important to know how to use them correctly.

Say

He said learning English is fun! (photo by tcarr)

He said learning English is fun! (photo by wtcc instructor tcarr)

We use the verb “say” with a clause. A clause always includes a subject (a thing or person) and a verb (an action, usually). Sometimes, we use a “that” clause with “say” like this:

She said that she was tired.
He says that he forgot his homework.
I always say that you should wear sunscreen.

In all of these sentences, “that” is correct, but it is optional (you don’t have to use it).

She said she was tired.
He says he forgot his homework.
I always say you should wear sunscreen.

Sometimes we use a quote with “say” like this:

She always says, “Good morning,” to her friends.
He said, “I don’t love you anymore.”
I said, “I’d like a salad, please.”

And sometimes we use a phrase like one of these:

  • a word – Clark said a bad word.
  • a phrase – Mr. Brashov says a phrase in Romanian.
  • a name – When your order is ready, they will say your name.
  • a sentence – The teacher said a long sentence. I only understood half of it.

If you want to show the other person in the conversation, you can use “to” + someone.

She always says, “Good morning,” to her friends.
She said
to me that she was tired.
I said
to the waitress, “I’d like a salad, please.”

Tell

She tells her friend a funny story. (photo by tcarr)

She tells her friend a funny story. (photo by wtcc instructor tcarr)

After “tell,” we usually use a noun (a person or a thing). This noun is either:

  • the person who is listening – He told me to clean my room.
  • a phrase like story or joke – I told a story about my father.

We use “tell” when someone gives an order to someone else. When we report an order, we use “tell + person + to + verb.”

He told me to clean my room.
I always tell people to wear sunscreen.

She tells him to call her.

It is possible to use “tell” with a “that” clause (like with “say”), but you must include the listener.

She told me she was tired.
He tells me that he forgot his homework.
I always tell you that you should wear sunscreen.

Speak and Talk

“Speak” and “talk” have similar meanings. Both mean that the person is using his/her voice or that two or more people are having a conversation. Look at these pairs of sentences. You can see that “speak” and “talk” are both correct, and the meaning is the same.

I spoke to her about the homework.
I talked to her about the homework.

Who were you talking to about the movie?
Who were you speaking to about the movie?

However, there are three differences between “speak” and “talk.”

The students speak English in class. (photo by tcarr)

The students speak English in class. (photo by wtcc instructor tcarr)

1. We use “speak” when we want to say that someone has the ability to use a language.

She speaks English.
He speaks three languages.

2. “Speak” is often used for one-way communication (for example, when one person is giving a speech to a group of people).

The manager spoke to the employees about the new work schedule.

3. “Speak” is a little more formal than “talk.” We use “speak” for polite requests. People usually use “speak” when they ask for someone on the phone.

May I speak to the owner of this store?
Hello? May I speak with Jason, please?

She talks to her classmate.

An ESL student talks to her classmate. (photo by wtcc instructor tcarr)

“Talk” is used more with conversational meanings and informal situations.

She talks to her mother every day.
They talked to their teacher about the test.

Your Turn

If you would like to do some practice exercises with these verbs, click on the links below!

http://usefulenglish.ru/vocabulary/synonyms-exercise-one

http://www.tolearnenglish.com/exercises/exercise-english-2/exercise-english-36455.php

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