The Difference Between Tell, Say, Speak, Talk

When to use Tell, Say, Speak, Talk

These four verbs have a similar meaning, they are just used in different contexts. In general, tell and say are used when conveying specific information. Both can be used interchangeably by changing the sentence structure. There are always exceptions to these rules so it is important to pay attention to native speakers and when reading content in English. These are a few general ways to distinguish between all four. I’m going to help you know when to use them so that you can sound like a confident native speaker!

How to use tell 

The verb tell is used when speaking directly to a person so it follows an object in a sentence.  Tell also frequently focuses on specific information or details about something. It is used in indirect speech, also known as reported speech. This means that it is not used when quoting someone else’s speech, just when paraphrasing what someone said. 

  • The teacher told her students to study
  • Jeff told me he likes juice
  • Mike told Jessie she hates milk

How to use say 

The verb say can be used in direct and indirect speech as follows:

  • She said “I don’t want to go” (direct) 
  • She said she didn’t want to go (indirect)

Say doesn’t follow an object but if you were to refer to an object you would add to

  • She said to Matt she liked Ice cream
  • Charlies said to me Mike is busy 

When to use say vs tell 

These two verbs can be used interchangeably. You just have to structure your sentence a bit different:

  • Did she tell you what happened yesterday?
  • Did she say what happened yesterday?
  • What did Emily say
  • What did Emily tell you?

How to use speak 

Used in more formal, authoritative situations. It is used in more general terms, not as specific as tell and say. It is also used when referring to languages and when referring to giving a speech to a large crowd:

  • Sam speaks English very well 
  • Dr. Phillips will speak at the conference next week

How to use talk 

Used in an informal situation and in generic terms. Interchangeable with the word speak depending on the situation. It is also used to talk about more specific detail by adding the word about

  • We talked about the party yesterday.
  • I want to talk to you about your job

Ways to use speak vs talk 

They are interchangeable with each other depending on the formality of the speech. Speak is more formal and talk is less formal. Both use the prepositions with, about, or to. 

    • I want to talk with your mom 
    • He wants to speak to your manager 

Synonyms of TELL, SAY, SPEAK, TALK

To help you expand your vocabulary, here are a few synonyms you can use to improve your fluency. Some may be used in more formal situations than others.

    • Let’s discuss what happened today 
    • I want to chat with you about your business 
    • He wants to comment on the new manager 
    • Jesse wants to mention her vacation days 
    • I want to voice my opinion 
    • The report stated it is going rain all week

These four verbs may sound pretty simple to understand but choosing between the four may be confusing if you are not aware of how to distinguish them. I hope I was able to clarify their differences so that next time you try to use them, you will be an expert and sound like a native.

If you liked this lesson, you should check out another similar lesson HERE!

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Picture of Gabby Wallace, M.Ed TESOL

Gabby Wallace, M.Ed TESOL

About the Author
Gabby Wallace is the Founder of Go Natural English, where you can quickly improve your confidence speaking English through advanced fluency practice. Even if you don't have much time, this is the best place for improving your English skills. Millions of global intermediate - advanced English students are learning with Gabby's inspiring, clear, and energetic English lessons. Gabby has a Masters Degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Boston University and 20+ years experience helping students become fluent through her online courses and membership program.

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