How to use TALK TELL SAY SPEAK correctly in English

Lesson Overview

Do you know how to use TALK, TELL, SAY, & SPEAK correctly in English? It’s tricky to grasp the difference between TALK & TELL, and understanding how to use SAY and TELL correctly takes a little practice. This lesson & the quiz at the end will help you practise!

Many of my English students get them confused and it can easily lead to grammar mistakes and confusion! These common words are similar, but not the same! And the way they are used in English sentences is slightly different!

I’m happy to share these important English tips about SAY, TELL, TALK & SPEAK!

Video Transcript

Hey there! I’m Emma from mmmEnglish.

Say, speak, talk, tell.

Do you know how to use these words correctly in English? What’s the difference between talk and tell?

These are simple everyday verbs but they are often confused by English learners. They’re so similar that sometimes it’s difficult to choose the correct one. They’re all similar but they are not the same and there are some important rules that you need to know to make sure you’re speaking English clearly and accurately.

Can you tell your name?

He said me to meet here.

If you like the sound of this lesson and you’re excited to learn the difference between talk and tell, make sure you let me know. Give this lesson a like, hit the subscribe button down there so you never miss a mmmEnglish lesson.

How to Use Say and Tell

Let’s start with the verbs say and tell.

These are both reporting verbs and they’re used to report ideas or information that were expressed by someone else when they were speaking.

They’re also both irregular verbs so in the present tense we have say and tell but in the past tense they become said and told. That’s right.

You could be forgiven for thinking these words are synonyms but actually they are slightly different in their definitions.

Say means to express something using words.

Tell means to give information or instructions to a person and that is the most important difference.

When you use the verb tell it must always be followed by a personal object, the person who is receiving the information. So it could be their name or a personal pronoun. Whatever you choose it must be followed by a person.

Let’s look at some examples together and I want you to repeat them out loud with me.

  • Where are they going? She didn’t say.
  • Where are they going? She didn’t tell me.
  • What did he say? What did he tell you?
  • Say hi to Paul for me! Tell Paul I said hi!

So I’m going to keep giving you some examples now but you’ll have to listen carefully because there are two sentences that are incorrect so I want you to listen out for them and tell me down in the comments which ones are wrong.

I want to say something about our teacher.
I want to tell you something about our teacher.

Did he say how it happened?
Did he tell how it happened?

I said their new house was beautiful.
I told them their new house was beautiful.

She said me I would meet him on Sunday.
She told me I would meet him on Sunday.

The most important difference between these two verbs is that tell must have a person following it. It must have a personal pronoun or a name and say needs to use the preposition to if we want to include who the words were spoken to.

So this one is wrong. We need a personal object.

Who did he tell the information to? You? Them? Us? Sarah? This information is missing from our sentence so we need to say who.

And this one was wrong as well. If we need to explain who heard the words we need to include the preposition to.

  • She said to me I would meet him on Sunday.

But often this information is not important or it’s not necessary.

  • She said I would meet him on Sunday.

This is perfectly okay as well.

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How to use Speak and Talk

Okay, so what about the verbs speak and talk?

Just like say and tell, the verb speak is irregular.

So in the past tense, we use spoke and spoken is the past participle but talk is just a regular verb so in the past tense we need to add -ed. Talked.

And to pronounce the past tense form of a regular verb, here we have talk, we need to add the sound to the end. Talked.

Speak and talk are synonyms. Most of the time you can choose either of these verbs and use it in your sentence. But there are a few small differences that you need to be aware of.

Speak sounds more formal than talk so it’s often used if the speaker and the listener are not known very well to each other and it’s also more common when you’re at work so in a professional context, maybe when you’re talking on the phone or you’re talking with your boss, speak is the better, more formal verb to use.

Speak also makes it sound more serious or more important as well so for example, “Can I speak to you?” sounds more important or more serious than “Can I talk to you?”

There is also a little subtle difference because speak focuses on the person who is producing the words whereas talk focuses on both the speaker and at least one listener so immediately the feeling suggests that there is a conversation going on so it sounds a little strange to say: They can speak and get to know each other.

Firstly because it sounds quite formal and secondly because this verb really focuses on the speaker and not on the conversation so instead of imagining these two people having a conversation together we imagine them speaking at each other separately. It’s a subtle, subtle difference but an important one when you think about that context.

And most importantly you can only use speak when you’re talking about languages.

“They speak Arabic” not “They talk Arabic.”

Tell me down in the comments how many languages do you speak?

Notice that I used speak, I would never say “How many languages do you talk?” because you can’t use talk when you’re talking about languages.

The difference between Talk and Tell

So what about the difference between talk and tell?

The important difference to remember is that talk can’t be used to report indirect speech. It’s not possible.

  • He told me he would be late.
  • He talked to me he would be late.


So now you’ve learned the difference between these words, let’s test your knowledge and see if you can get all ten questions in this quiz right.

Okay, you’re gonna see the sentence up on screen, you’ll need to choose the best verb for that sentence.

  • Did he say how it happened?
  • I said they would lose the match, didn’t I?
  • I want to tell you something about our teacher.
  • Jim spoke to his boss about a promotion.
  • She said we could go on Sunday.
  • I told you they couldn’t afford it.
  • Did Greg tell you how it happened?
  • She told me about it on Sunday.
  • Can I say something to you?
  • Can you tell him something from me?

Nice work! I hope that you enjoyed this lesson today.

If you did please make sure you give it a like, subscribe to my channel and make sure you check out some of my other mmmEnglish lessons, they’ll be right over here in a moment.

But first your homework. I want you to practise writing four separate sentences using say, tell, talk and speak. Drop those four sentences down into the comments so that I can check your answers for you and make any corrections if you need them.

Once you’ve done that come join me in this lesson right over here.

Links mentioned in the video

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