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ELC Los Angeles English Grammar Lesson – Say vs. Tell! November 22nd, 2016

say vs tell reported speech

If you have studied in the U.S., you’ll know that we take stating and citing the source very seriously, hence why the topic “plagiarism” is mentioned before every paper or presentation. However, how you report what someone said is also important. Here’s a short lesson on Reported Speech:

When to Use Reported Speech

Someone (Chris) may say a sentence, such as, “I love In-N-Out burgers.” Later on, you and your friend might be deciding on a place to eat and you want to share this information. This is how you do it:

“Say” or “tell” are the main reporting verbs.

Say

Direct Speech
Chris: I love In-N-Out burgers.

Present, Reported Speech
Chris’s friend: He says he likes In-N-Out burgers. (“I” “he”)

Past, Reported Speech
Chris’s friend: He said he liked In-N-Out burgers. (“I” “he”; “liked” to show past)

If the reporting verb is in the past tense as shown above, then usually we change
the tenses in the reported speech:

Tense Direct Speech Reported Speech
Present Simple I like tacos. She said she liked tacos.
Present Progressive I am riding the bus. She said she was riding the bus.
Present Simple I like tacos. She said she liked tacos.
Past Simple I voted. She said she voted.
Past Progressive I was listening to Prince. She said she had been listening to Prince.
Present Perfect I haven’t gone to the market yet. She said she hadn’t gone to the market yet.
Past Perfect I had played baseball before. She said she had played baseball before.
Will I’ll drive you to work. She said she would drive me to work.
Would* I would cook, but I’m too busy. She said she would cook, but she said she was/is too busy.
Can* I can draw. She said she could/can draw.
Could I could sing when I was a child. She said she could sing when she was a child.
Should I should exercise more. She said she should exercise more.
Might I might be late. She said she might be late.
Must I must find a new job. She said she must find a new job.
She said she had to find a new job.

*Occasionally, we don’t need to change the present tense into the past if the
information in direct speech is still true (but this is only for things which are general
facts, and even then usually we like to change the tense):

Direct speech: The sky is blue.
Reported speech: She said that the sky is/was blue.

Direct speech: I can draw.
Reported speech: She said she can draw.
(She has the ability to draw and she can still draw now).

Tell

For “tell”, this reporting verb functions like “say” with the tense changes. However, the biggest difference is that it needs an object every time it is used.

Direct Speech: I’m moving to Hawaii!
Reported Speech: She told me she was moving to Hawaii.
OR She told me that she was moving to Hawaii.

You cannot say, “She told she was moving to Hawaii.” “Tell” needs its object, whereas “say” does not! Including “that” after the object is optional.

List of objects:

She told me (that) she was moving to Hawaii.
She told you (that) she was moving to Hawaii.
She told her (that) she was moving to Hawaii.
She told him (that) she was moving to Hawaii.

She told us (that) she was moving to Hawaii.
She told them (that) she was moving to Hawaii.

tell reported speech