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I want some clarification on the verbs tell, say and speak because they mean the same action to me.

For example, you can use both of these sentences.

He said "I am not attending the party."

He told he is not coming to the party.

I am not sure about the second one but in any case

He spoke he is not attending.

seems kinda awkward. My impressions are based on the common uses as I see and hear people. Is there any formal rule about which one is most appropriate in a given context for native speakers?

  • They may "mean the same action" but think about whether the purpose behind the action is the same. – Jim Feb 11 '14 at 2:26
  • Sorry, I didn't get the point. By same action, I meant moving your mouth and expressing yourself verbally. What do you mean by purpose? Are you referring to the emotion or opinion or information communicated by the subject? – Della Feb 11 '14 at 2:30
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There are some general patterns to the usage of these words.

  • "Told" can be used to report the subject of what someone has said, but cannot be used for a quotation. It is a transitive verb: if X is telling something, they are almost always telling it [to] someone, at least implicitly.

    He told me that he would go to the store.

    He told me, "I will go to the store".

    If he knows the secret of eternal life, he isn't telling [anyone].

    "Telling" is also used in specific contexts, such as pieces of definite information:

    He told me the secret of eternal life.

    He told [to the assembled crowd] the story of the moose and the squirrel.

    However, one cannot use "tell" to describe the quality of how someone speaks without saying anything of the content. "He told me angrily to leave" is correct, but "He told me angrily" is not, unless what it is that he said is somehow implied by the context.


  • "Said" plays a similar role to "told", but can be used as an intransitive verb — one can 'say' without necessarily saying to anyone.

    He said that he would go to the store.

    He said to me that he would go to the store.

    He said, "I will go to the store".

    He said to me, "I will go to the store".

    But you would never "say" a story, or a secret; and again you would never use "say" to describe the quality of how someone speaks, without describing what they have said.


  • "Spoke" is not usable for describing definite quotations, and so tends to be somewhat vague about what exactly is said; but it can be used to describe qualities of the way that people talk, in ways that "told" or "said" cannot. It can also be transitive or intransitive.

    He's quite agitated when he speaks.

    He spoke to me yesterday.

    I'm going to speak to her about her relationship with Brian.

    He spoke loudly, and in a deep baritone.

    Dr. Clancy spoke about the social costs of violent crime.

    You can also talk about speaking words, and describe what sort of words one is speaking:

    He spoke the magic words.

    With many such parables he spoke the word to them.

  • +1 - good answer. I do think specific words can be spoken, though. "He spoke the magic words..." "With many such parables he spoke the word to them." – anongoodnurse Feb 11 '14 at 3:06
  • @Susan: thanks, I've edited my response to include your examples. – Niel de Beaudrap Feb 11 '14 at 3:14

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