The Difference Between “to say” and “to tell”

Many students have problems decided whether to use “to say” or “to tell.”  This is because these two verbs are usually translated into Catalan and Spanish with the same verb: dir / decir.  This is an equivalent translation.  The direct translation, however, of “to tell” would be “comptar / contar,” and “to say” would be more like “afirmar.”  Or in other words, “to say” focuses more on the words and “to tell” focuses more on the person or persons to whom the message was directed.  For example:

  • He said that it was late

Va dir que era tard Dijo que era tarde

  • He told me that it was late

Em va dir que era tard Me dijo que era tarde

It is possible to use “to say” in the same sense as to tell, but you need to use the preposition “to.”  For example:

  • He told me

Em va dir / Me dijo


  • He said to me

M’ho va dir / Me lo dijo

  • He told me it


  • He said it to me

(Note the difference in the position of the definite pronoun)


The general rule is that you say something

  • They said yes

Va dir que sí Dijo que sí

  • He said that he was French

Va dir que era francès Dijo que era francés

  • I said that I would do it

Vaig dir que ho faria Dije que lo haría

BUT you tell somebody:

  • He told me

Em va dir Me dijo

  • I told you

Et vaig dir Te dijo

  • They told us

Ens van dir Nos dijeron

  • We told the man

Li vam dir a l’home Le dijimos al hombre

  • Tell John

Digues-li al John/Dile a John


However, there are some exceptions.  For example:

  • to tell the time

dir l’hora decir la hora

  • to tell a story

explicar un història contar una historia

  • to tell a lie / the truth

dir una mentida la veritat

decir una mentira la verdad


  • He said that it was a lie

Va dir que era una mentida Dijo que era mentida

  • He said that it was the truth

Va dir que era la veritat Dijo que era la verdad


Written by Mike Dean Alger for Aston School

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