Say, tell, speak, talk



My students often ask about the differences in say, tell, speak, and talk. Is there a quick and easy way to clarify this for them?

A teacher in Baltimore


An easy way? Not really! These verbs have different histories in English usage, so they overlap in confusing ways for the learner. They combine subtleties of meaning (vocabulary) as well as form (grammar), so the teacher's job is to provide examples that clarify those subtleties.

Learners can benefit from seeing examples of these distinctions. However, those examples will naturally introduce the confusion of grammatical forms that accompany each verb—direct and indirect objects, infinitives and that-clauses, etc.

Perhaps the best we teachers can do is (a) teach the basic structures and (b) caution against the most common errors, such as

X They said me…
X I told that I…

Barbara Matthies


Say, tell, speak, and talk have different meanings, but far more important to learners are the different grammatical patterns that each verb takes. The main difficulty for learners is 1) whether a verb can take a direct object or indirect object or both; and 2) if it does, what kinds of object constructions are possible. There is no easy way to learn these distinctions, but teachers should be aware of the grammatical properties of each verb. Click here for a summary.

Marilyn Martin