How to Use “say” and “tell” in Reported Speech

Often when I am teaching I overhear students say something like “he say me, it’s good“, or “I tell, it’s good.” It’s a small mistake and still easy to understand the essence of what they want to communicate, but it can make a big difference in someone’s first impression of you if you eliminate these small grammatical errors. So let’s have a look at the differences between these two often confused verbs: say and tell.

These verbs are very important when we use reported speech.
What is reported speech you ask? As the name of the language structure suggests, reported speech is the form of language we use when we are reporting something.

Here is an example to help us understand:

If I tell you “you look great“, that is direct speech. I am telling you, you look great. There is no one else involved. The thought goes directly from my brain to yours.

However, let’s imagine that I am horribly shy so instead of telling you directly I tell your friend that I think you look great. In this case then, your friend could report this back to you using reported speech. They would say: “Josh said you looked great,” or “Josh told me that you looked great.

Notice what happens to the form of the verb in reported speech; it shifts back a tense. The verb in the direct speech example is in the present simple, but once we put the sentence in reported speech the verb shifts back to the simple past.

So far, so good? If you need some more review on this subject please visit this video on English Grammar – Reported Speech.

Now let’s look at the differences between ‘say’ and ‘tell’.

The principal rule when it comes to SAY and TELL is the following:

In reported speech the verb tell always requires an object after it. That’s it. Very straightforward. After tell (in reported speech) you must always put an object. Very often these objects are object pronouns or proper nouns.

Need a reminder what those funny things are? Sure, no problem. Object pronouns are these guys: ME, YOU, HIM, HER, IT, US, THEM. Proper nouns are names of places, like ILAC, Josh, Jessica Alba, etc.

So this is how we use ‘tell’:
Let’s daydream for a second and imagine that you are at a fancy Hollywood party and you are having a conversation with the beautiful actor Jessica Alba and she says the following:

Jessica Alba
Photography: Gage Skidmore via flickr.com

Jessica Alba: Josh is such a great guy!

How would we put this sentence in reported speech?

That’s right! It would be: Jessica Alba said (that) Josh was such a great guy.
Alternatively we could also say: Jessica Alba told me (that*) Josh was such a great guy.


* ‘That’ is in brackets because it is optional. It is your choice if you want to use it.


The important thing to notice in the sentences above are the structures.

With the verb ‘say’ notice how the sentence is formed.
We have our subject, followed by the past of the verb say, plus our proper noun (Josh), and finally our tense shifted verb (is became ‘was’).

Jessica Alba said Josh was such a great guy.
We could also say: Jessica Alba said he was such a great guy.

This is a key difference between ‘say’ and ‘tell’. With ‘say’ the structure here is
subject + past of say + he

However, when we use ‘tell’, we have to follow the verb with an object pronoun or a proper noun. So it would be Jessica Alba told me Josh was such a great guy.

Again, it’s up to you if you want to include the word that after the object pronoun or the verb say.
It is also correct to say: Jessica Alba told me that Josh was such a great guy, or Jessica Alba said that Josh was such a great guy.

Still with me? I know this can be difficult to get your head around at first, but with continued practice, trust me, it gets much easier!

Listen to the ILAC Radio Podcast:

Let’s test out your reported speech skills now.

Josh Mover

[mlw_quizmaster quiz=6]

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