Skip to main content

Say or tell? Speak or talk? Which is it?

Deciding which verb is the right one can be confusing.

To remind you of what’s what, here are some tips and examples.

We use say to report about general information or something that has been stated by someone.

The article said that we’re all taking too many antibiotics.
On the news it said that too much sugar is bad for you.
The instructions say to wash the spacer once a week.
The doctor often says we need to exercise more.
Mark said he would go to the doctor tomorrow if he still felt dizzy.

We use tell to report what someone has communicated to a specific person.

The doctor told them to exercise more.
My friend told us about his medical emergency in Thailand.
She told everyone the good news that she was in remission.
It’s important to tell a patient the truth.
Every day she tells me that she’s feeling better, but she looks worse.

Speak and talk are often interchangeable.

Speak tends to be more formal. It’s used when addressing a group of people. Speak is also used with languages.

The doctor needs to speak with you about the test results.
He’s speaking to the consultant cardiologist at the moment.
The practice manager is going to speak to all staff at 10:30 am.
She spoke at the ophthalmology conference last week.
Our dieticians speak English, Chinese, Spanish and Swahili.

For informal conversations between a few people, talk is usually used. It’s also the less formal version of discuss.

The physio talked with me about doing more exercise.
The doctor talked to me about losing some weight.
He’s always talking about his bad back.
The article talks about the best diets for losing weight.
The article discusses the best diets for losing weight.

What’s the best way to remember the differences?

Make up your own model sentences that are relevant or funny for you.

You can email them to me and I’ll check them for you.

Also see here, here and here for help with more common confusions.

Liked this? Sign up for email alerts.

© Christina Wielgolawski