The Difference Between Say, Tell, Talk and Speak (RealLife English)
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Have you ever confused the words say, tell, talk, and speak? If you answered “yes” then welcome to the club! These four words are commonly confused by English learners from all over the world.

In this episode of RealLife TV you are going to discover the subtle difference between these similar words and never confuse them again.


What’s up, RealLifers, welcome to another episode of RealLife TV. I’m Chad and today I’m going to teach you the difference between say, tell, talk and speak. Aww yeah!

          Is this RealLife?

All right, guys, let’s start off with the difference between say and tell. Most of my students and a lot of people I know continuously make mistakes with these two words.

          When to use “say”

So, first of all, the verb to say. Say is often used with reported speech. So, that case, when you want to tell someone what another person said, that’s when I use say. For example, "he said he wasn’t going to class today". "He said that he wasn’t going to class today". I’m reporting what that person said.

And, if you noticed, I’m just giving this as general information, as what he said. I’m not really directing it to anyone. “He says a lot of things,” “he said that he was going to go traveling.” Ok?

          How to use “tell”

But when I use the verb to tell, it’s generally more directed at someone. That’s why I’ll always use an object after the verb to tell.

So, using the same examples, “he told me that he wasn’t going to class today.” He told me, he told that guy, he told his teacher.

So, that’s one of the biggest mistakes people have with say and tell. So, just remember, say is generally for reported speech, and you don’t necessarily need, you don’t need the object after the verb. “He said…” whatever it is that person said. If I use the verb to tell, “he told me,” “he told you,” “he told us,” “he told everyone,” ok?

          Using “say” to ask someone to repeat something

Another way we use the verb to say is often when we’re asking a question, or when we’re asking someone to repeat what they’ve just said. So you often, you’re going to find yourself saying “sorry, what did you say?,” or “what did he say?,” or, as a survival phrase, “how do you say…?” when you want someone to repeat a word.

          Using “tell” to order someone

Another common way to use tell, which is much different to say, is when you’re going to order someone, or tell someone what to do. You could make a request, for example, “Hey, tell him to meet me at the cafe.” It’s like to pass on that message. “Can you tell him to meet me after class at the cafe?” So I’m kind of giving someone an order, asking them to pass on a message for me.

          Talk and Speak

The next big problem that a lot of people have is distinguishing the difference between talk and speak. So, talk generally means to converse, to have a conversation. “I was talking with my friend.” So, when you use the “talk” with the preposition “with,” it means you’re just having a general conversation, ok? “I was talking with my friend.”

Or, I could say, “I need to talk to you about…” So, this case is usually more specific, it’s about a specific situation. So, you’re often going to use talk with someone about something.

          Speak a language

Ok, and the verb to speak is generally referencing a language. I speak English, I speak whatever language. Portuguese, Spanish, French. But, the way that speak is very similar to the verb to talk is when you speak to someone and you talk to someone. The difference there is that, generally, when I say “I need to speak to you about something” it sounds a little more serious than if I have to talk to you about something.

Like I said, talk is more about just having a general conversation, but if I want to speak to you about something, it sounds a little more serious. Maybe I have some problems to resolve.

All right, guys, that brings us to the end of this lesson. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you haven’t already, don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel so you get all of our newest videos, and also, in the box below, there’s a link to an article which will explain everything I’m talking about right now with a little bit more detail and it’d be a good resource for you to study as well. So, thanks a lot for joining us today, hope to see you next time on RealLife TV.


Here is a very basic summary:

SAY + something

- he said "hello" / he said "hello" to Kevin

TELL + somebody
- he told me "hello" / he told me a secret

TALK (conversation)
- I was talking to Susan yesterday

SPEAK (language, conference)
- I speak English / He spoke about peace in the parliament

- I have to talk to you (conversation)
- I have to speak to you (formal situation, more serious conversation)
(note: in AmE it is also very common to say "speak with")