Language tip of the week: tell

Posted by on December 20, 2012

In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. These tips are based on areas of English which learners often find difficult, e.g. spelling, grammar, collocation, synonyms, etc.

This week some advice about the verb tell:

Unlike the verb say, the verb tell is usually used with a personal object, which refers to the person who is being told something:
✗ We know that what they are telling has already been said many times.
✓ We know that what they are telling us has already been said many times.

If you don’t want to mention a personal direct object, use say instead:
✗ As Rousseau told in his book, humans are good by nature, but society corrupts them.
✓ As Rousseau said in his book, humans are good by nature, but society corrupts them.

Don’t use the preposition to after tell to introduce the object (the person who is being told something):
✗ He told to journalists that he was innocent.
✓ He told journalists that he was innocent.

However, in some fixed expressions, tell can be followed by an object which refers to what is being told.
The most frequent expressions are:
tell a joke, tell a lie, tell a story, tell the time, tell the truth

Tell
can also be used with an infinitive to mean ‘to order someone to do something’. Don’t use say in this meaning:
✗ Who puts women in the kitchen, or says them to do the housework?
✓ Who puts women in the kitchen, or tells them to do the housework?

More language tips

Browse the list under the ‘language tips‘ tag here on the blog for more useful language tips.

Would you like to improve your vocabulary? Follow our daily tweets @MacLearnEnglish or visit our Learn English Facebook Page.

Comments (1)
  • As a previous English teacher, this type of BLOG would interest me. I think it would be especially helpful to ESL teachers.

    Posted by Jo on 26th January, 2013
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields Notify me of follow-up comments via email