#248: Say vs Tell | Speak vs Talk: Understand Confusing Verb Pairs

Aug 10, 2022 | Advanced Vocabulary, Confusing Words in English, Grammar

If you’ve ever felt frustrated with these confusing English verbs say, tell, speak, talk

This lesson is everything you need to use these confusing English verb pairs with confident accuracy. 

With simple explanations, you’ll get clarity on the differences between the English verb pairs: say vs. tell and speak vs. talk so you can avoid common English mistakes and stop feeling worried.

Along the way, I’ll have quizzes for practice to make sure you’ve got it right.

Say vs Tell and Speak vs Talk: A Complete Lesson

Say vs. Tell

Both verbs are used to talk about giving information to another person using words. 

The difference between say and tell is a subtle but important one. When misused, English speakers immediately notice the mistake.

So let’s look at how to avoid mistakes.

The most important difference between say vs. tell is in the focus or emphasis of the verb.


With say, the focus is on the information. When used in a sentence, say is followed by what is or was said. It isn’t necessary to include the listener. 

For example, 

  • She says we need to finish up by noon.
  • The boss said to take Friday off.
  • Anna said it was easy to do


With tell, on the other hand, the focus is on the listener and is followed by whom. To whom did we tell? Who received the information?

For example: 

  • She told me to finish up by noon.
  • The boss told us to take Friday off.
  • Anna told her it was easy to do.


With that in mind, let’s look at a few more key uses of say vs. tell.

Use #1: When Informing/Instructing

When informing others or giving information, we often use the word ‘say’. 

People share information: 

  • Ex. Carol said the restaurant on Main St. is quite lovely.” 

However, various mediums share information too:

  • Ex.The letter says that there may be a disruption in the water supply for a few hours.” 
  • Ex.The news says that the Golden State Warriors might win the championship.” 

On the other hand, when giving instructions or orders, we use ‘tell’.

We often pair the word with an infinitive and identify the person who was instructed. 

  • Ex. “The supervisor told us to send him a copy before the meeting.


Use #2: When Paraphrasing

‘Tell’ is used to report what was said.

In other words, we like to use it to paraphrase what someone has said. 

Again, just as in instruction, we often identify the recipient. 

  • Ex. “Simone told us that she’ll meet up with us some other time.” 

In this example, rather than sharing Simone’s specific words, the speaker paraphrases the main point of their conversation by using ‘tell’ to report it.  


Situation #3: When Directly Quoting

In contrast, we use ‘say’ to directly quote the exact words used by the speaker. In other words, there is no interpretation or rewording. Instead, we share the exact same words that were uttered by the speaker.

  • Ex. Simone said, “I’m tied up at work and won’t be able to meet everyone for lunch. I’ll join you next time”. 


Situation #4: When Hypothesizing

When we’re hypothesizing or pondering, you’ll often notice the speaker starts with “Let’s say…” meaning “let’s imagine.”

In this situation, the speaker would use the phrase ‘let’s say’ and follow up with a scenario and/or a question. 

  • Let’s say you’ve won a million dollars. What would you do first?” 
  • Let’s say we do renovate the kitchen this summer. What would be the best way to budget?” 

Speak vs Talk

And now, let’s move on to the key distinctions and uses of the commonly confused English verbs speak vs. talk.

Just like say vs. tell, speak vs. talk are quite similar in meaning but there are 2 distinct differences: 

1) ‘Speak’ is often used when formality and politeness are required. Especially, if we refer to formal circumstances. On the contrary, ‘talk’ is used informally and when referring to informal circumstances. 

For example: 

  • We spoke about the impact of our new media campaign in the meeting yesterday.
  • We talked about the impact of our new media campaign in the meeting yesterday.

Both sentences are grammatically correct and have the same meeting; however, the first sentence is quite formal. It sounds a bit more cold and distant. 

With friends, family, peers, coworkers, clients, and more, you’re more likely to hear the second sentence, which is more casual in tone.
2) ‘Talk’ is used when referring to a conversation (a conversation implies that more than one person is involved and more than one person is speaking), whereas ‘speak’ isn’t used in circumstances that have an absence of a back-and-forth element.

Let’s look at 5 specific situations that illustrate the differences between speak vs. talk with examples and a quiz.


Situation #1: When Specifying Language

When we refer to languages we always use ‘speak’. 

  • Ex. Carmen speaks Spanish fluently.” 
  • Ex.Many of the women in our Confident Women Community speak more than two languages.”  


Situation #2: When Focusing On One Person

English speakers use ‘speak’ to focus on the person producing the words. Often, the circumstance doesn’t refer to a conversation (again, a conversation implies that more than one person is involved and is speaking). 

  • Ex. Imagine you make a call. You may politely and formally ask the person who picked up, “May I speak with Helen?

When making a polite request over the phone, we often say ‘speak with.’ 

  • Ex. You may even focus on who a particular person spoke with by saying, “Helen spoke with me”. 


Situation #3: When Having A Conversation

‘Talk’ is directly and strongly connected to informal conversations.

When referring to a conversation with two or more participants, English speakers use ‘talk’. 

  • Ex. “My friends and I talked for hours over dinner and it was wonderful.”

When ‘talk’ is paired with ‘to’ it focuses on the action of one person communicating an idea or thought to the other. 

  • Ex. “I talked to Maureen regarding the change in venue.

    While the example implies a conversation, the focus is on the action of conveying specific information in an informal conversation.


Situation #4: When Specifying A Topic

In addition, when you wish to specify the topic of conversation, you may follow ‘talk’ with ‘about’. 

  • Ex. “Recently in the Confident Women Community, we’ve been talking about the importance of transitioning from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset..”

However, when referring to formal circumstances where the speaker addresses a larger group of people, such as a lecture or presentation, we use ‘speak’.

  • Ex. “She spoke about the hidden power of introverts during her presentation.” 


Situation #5: When Referring To Extended Communication

Lastly, we use ‘talk’ when referring to verbal communication between people over a period of time. 

  • Ex. “We haven’t talked in ages.”
  • Ex.My friends and I sat by the campfire and talked for hours.

In both examples, ‘talk’ is followed by a preposition and a period of time. We use ‘talk’ with ‘in’ when the focus is on the last conversation.

However, we use ‘talk’ with ‘for’ when we want to emphasize the length of time of a conversation or the time that has passed since the last conversation.

Let’s finish with a quiz on say vs. tell and speak vs. talk.

Review the sentences below and determine the correct verb (and verb form). 

After you complete the quiz, you can find the correct verbs in the comment below.

    1. Dr. Gupta will _______ at the conference next week. 
    2. My husband and I _______ about the offer, and we’ve decided to accept.
    3. I’m so glad that my toddler _______ more than one language. 
    4. Let’s _______ we take a roadtrip. Where would we go? 
    5. Our mother always _______ us to avoid following trends and stick to classic styles.

      ~ Annemarie


      P.S. Are you looking for a community to provide support, help you stay motivated, and guarantee that you grow? Check out our Confident Women Community.

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