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“Nothing to tell” versus “nothing to say”

Both words seem to be used interchangeably. I generally don't differentiate between them and intuitively pick one over the other. Is there a standardized way to distinguish between the two?

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marked as duplicate by KitFox, Robusto, JSBձոգչ, Marthaª, Thursagen Jun 29 '11 at 22:37

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4 Answers 4

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The verb tell is transitive, and takes a direct object. The verb said does not. You should use tell when you're emphasizing the fact that you're communicating something to somebody:

Let me tell you how to get to San Jose.
*Let me say to you how to get to San Jose.
Let me tell you a story.
*Let me say a story to you.

You should use say when there is no communication involved:

Say "rubber baby buggy bumpers" ten times fast.
*Tell me "rubber baby buggy bumpers" ten times fast.

Most of the time, both verbs can be used:

Tell me you didn't mean that.
Say you didn't mean that.

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"To say" is simply to speak; to have words coming out of your mouth at some audible level. "To tell" is to communicate a thought to some listener.

There is thus a slight grammatical difference; "to tell" requires that the object be the listener or recipient, and what is/was communicated becomes the object complement. With "to say", what is said is the object, unless a preposition is used to insert a listener as an object.

So, the following are all valid:

I said, "go away". - (no listener specified; it must be implied from context)

I said to Tom, "go away". - (listener specified as a proper noun)

I said that Tom should go away. - (Listener not specified, despite the presence of an object noun; it is part of another statement joined to "I said" with a conjunction)

I told Tom "go away". - (listener specified, implication is that Tom received and understood the message)

I told Tom to go away - (listener specified, what is told doesn't have to be a quote)

However, neither of the following are valid:

I said Tom "go away" - (requires a preposition to insert an object noun)

I told "go away" - (requires an object noun and object complement structure)

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Say is more general, and can refer to any indicative speech. Tell is a stronger word. It usually signifies either information being conveyed or a command. For example:

He told me what had happened.

He told me to go away.

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I guess it's more of a preference. You normally "tell" someone something. If I have nothing to tell, it suggests that there's no information, story, or answer to "tell" you. When I have nothing to say, it suggests that I'm either reluctant to say anything, or have nothing to say.

That's how I distinguish between the two, but in terms of their definition given the context, they are largely the same; like you, I don't differentiate between them as well.

Cheers!

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