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The Difference Between Say, Tell and Explain

Many learners of English are frequently confused by the difference between “Say”, “Tell” and “Explain”. The incorrect use of these verbs can lead to your English not sounding very fluent. In fact, these three verbs are very often the focus of official exam questions.

Luckily today I am here to clear everything up for you. Today, I will show you how to use these 3 verbs correctly and avoid the common mistakes that most non-native English speakers make.

The good news is that most of the errors are structural mistakes, which means you only have to learn and remember the structure to make it work. The downside is that some of them are collocation-based rules, so you will need to learn and remember which verbs go with certain nouns.

So, let’s dive in and clear up the difference between Say, Tell and Explain

Watch the episode here

The Difference Between Say, Tell and Explain


We use “tell” to give someone information directly. The verb “tell” expresses direct conversation, which means that you need to include a “person” or pronoun after “tell”.

Let me give you some examples to help you see what I mean.

  • Tell David to come and see me.
  • Did you tell Peter what time the party started?
  • Tell him the report needs finishing.
  • Please tell everyone that meeting starts at 10.

As you can see from the above examples, we need to follow tell with a “person” or pronoun.

Told and Reported Speech

Moreover, the simple past form of “tell” is “told” and this verb is commonly used in “Reported Speech”. Reported speech is when we tell someone something that was told to us.

Let me give you some examples to illustrate.

  • She told me she didn’t agree.
  • I told them I wasn’t happy with their work.
  • Chris told me he couldn’t make the meeting.
  • My boss told me to come in early.

Once again, the correct use of pronouns after the verb “tell” are essential in clearly expressing yourself and making sure the other person knows who you are talking about.

Tell in Collocations and Expressions

Next, “tell” also collocated with a number of specific nouns to form expressions. You will need to learn these and memorise them as they are fixed expression that will only work with the verb “tell”. Let’s look at some of the most common ones.

  • Tell the time
  • Tell a joke
  • Tell a story
  • Tell a lie
  • Tell the truth
  • Tell a secret
  • Tell the difference
  • Tell your name

Common Mistakes with Tell

Finally, let me quickly show you some common mistakes so that you can avoid them in the future.

Sometimes I hear students say, “Tell to somebody”, for example, “Tell to Tom lunch is ready”. You can’t use “to” after “tell”. Or another strange sounding structure is, “Tell it to John”. Remember, we, “Tell someone something”, not “Tell something to someone.”

OK, so we have “tell” clear, let’s look at “say”.


The verb “say” is very common and we use it to talk generally and not specifically to someone.

We don’t use a pronoun or person directly after “say”. We can, however, use the following structures:

  • Say something
  • Say that something
  • Say something to a someone
  • Something someone said

Here are some examples to help you.

  • The Government says they are going to raise taxes.
  • Mary says that she is having a baby.
  • What did the boss say to you after the meeting?
  • Harry said the meeting was cancelled.

Said and Reported Speech

The simple past form of the verb “say” is “said”. “Said is also a very common verb to use in reported speech.

Let’s take a look at “said” used as a reporting verb.

  • He said we need to be quiet during the presentation.
  • Harry said to me that we need to arrive early.
  • I said I wanted to move to a different department.
  • The boss said he needs our feedback by Monday.

Common Mistakes with Say

Let’s wrap this section up by looking at some of the common mistakes with “say”.

The typical mistake that most people make is that they follow a “person” or pronoun after say. For example, “John said me the lunch will be tomorrow.” Here we should use “told me”.

The other common mistake is that people use “say” for nouns or expressions that collocate with “tell”. For example, “Say me your name” or “Say the truth.”

OK, let’s look at the last part of this episode and clear up “explain”.


The last verb on my list today is “explain”. This verb also causes a lot of problems and fortunately the problem is nearly always related to using the correct structure.

Firstly, the verb “explain” is a regular verb (unlike “tell” and “say”), which means that all we need to do to transform it to the Simple Past form is to add “ed”. Some “explain”, becomes “explained”.

The rule for using “explain” is very simple, we “explain something, to someone”. It is essential that we place the topic or thing that is being explained after the verb “explain”.

Let me show you how this works with an example:

  • John, can you explain the rules to Chris?
  • Brain explained the meeting minutes to me.
  • Did you explain how to use the new photocopier to Mark?

As you can see, the thing for explanation comes directly after the verb “explain” and the preposition “to” is then placed before the “person”. Simple right? Explain is very structured.

Common Mistakes with Explain

Finally, let me quickly show you the typical mistakes with “explain” so that you don’t make the same mistake.

Most people who use “explain” incorrectly place a pronoun after “explain”. For example, “John, please explain me the problems with the project”.

Here you can see that the structure is all wrong. The “thing” being explained comes after the pronoun and there is no “to”.

So, that is how you correctly use “explain”.

Final thoughts

Understanding how to use these three common verbs correctly is critical to speaking fluent English. I know many advanced speakers of English who still make these basic structural errors when using these verbs.

Remember, you just need to study and memorise the structures in most cases or the typical expressions with “tell”.

If you want to learn more expressions for business then make sure you grab a copy of my eBook, “500 business English collocations for everyday use”. The resource is excellent value at only $4.99 and you also get a download with ALL of the pronunciation of ALL 500 expressions.

Finally, make sure you drop your questions or comments below, I am more than happy to clarify with you anything from this episode.

Well, that is it for me for another week. Stay safe, work hard and keep on improving your business English. See you next week.

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Andrew is the CEO and founder of the Art of Business English. Besides teaching and coaching native Spanish speakers in Business English, he is also passionate about mountain biking, sailing and healthy living. When He is not working, Andrew loves to spend time with his family and friends.

Andrew Ambrosius

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