I am preparing a press release, and so far the headline of the press release is:


A colleague called the word "tale" into question, since this is a book about a person's actual experiences in a Soviet labor camp. She feels that "tale" would be more appropriate for something fictional, whereas "story" should be used in this case. I'm not so sure "tale" is less appropriate for the situation, and on top of that, it sounds better.

Anyone have any good reasons for believing "story" is better than "tale"?

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    I have a connotation that your colleague is correct. When I think of tale I think of fiction. THE STORY OF A SOVIET... sounds more factual to me. Having said that I don't know the reasoning behind this, just a hunch. – Tommy Sep 22 '14 at 2:55
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    You might avoid the problem with tale and story by using report. – rogermue Sep 22 '14 at 4:07
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    @rogermue the term report is awful, a "survivor" is not the same as a journalist. – Mari-Lou A Sep 22 '14 at 4:44
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    @JoeBlow, not just canvassing opinions - looking for a good reason to go with one in preference to the other. – Cyberherbalist Sep 22 '14 at 5:48
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    you could also use "survivor's account" – JamesRyan Sep 22 '14 at 14:10
  1. There indeed is a contra-factual connotation to tale – perhaps due to its long-standing collocation and association with fictious narrative. cf. "fisherman's tale."

  2. The ODO has as one of the definitions of story as:

    3 An account of past events in someone’s life or in the development of something: the story of modern farming the film is based on a true story
      3.1 A particular person’s representation of the facts of a matter: during police interviews, Harper changed his story [emphasis added]

which is not in the definition of tale:

1A fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted
  1.1 A lie.

A story can be false but a tale seldom true, it seems.

What we have here is therefore, a story, not a tale.

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    Yeah. Logically I find tale and story to be synonymous. On pure gut instinct a tale sounds less likely to be true. "Tall tale" is the first thing that pops into my mind. – Preston Sep 22 '14 at 5:48
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    'Tale' could also be used simply to give the title a more whimsical tone which implies age. Talking about 'A tale' or 'A story' is also very different than talking about 'The Tale of a Traveler' or 'Story of the Survivor', neither of which give a clear indication of whether or not the story/tale is fictional. It can, like in my examples, be no more than alliteration. – Magus Sep 22 '14 at 16:27
  • The word "tale" immediately brings to mind "fairy tale", fictitious. I'd say it's connotation has relations to that – Raestloz Sep 23 '14 at 5:04
  • Perhaps tale is essentially the Germanic version of the Latin story, and perhaps their connotations differ because words with Latin roots has a certain cachet in English (pun intended). But the definition above does fit with the roots: a story is a "history" while a tale is simply "something told". – szarka Sep 23 '14 at 12:29

Offhand, I would have thought that tale carried a connotation of a story with a moral (fictional) whereas story related an event. However "survivor's story of the holocaust" gets about 185,000 results on googling, whereas "survivor's tale of the holocaust" gets about 400,000 results. (Some of that reflects on a book with that title.) "true story" holocaust: 842,000 hits; "true tale" holocaust: 298,000.

The dictionary definition doesn't help much.

Words associated with tale which imply falsehood include tall tale, folk tale, fairy tale, whereas cock-and-bull story implies a false story, but a sob story can be true or false.

I am the world's worst ngram user but here's one anyway:

enter image description here

I can't give you a solid reason for it, but I think story is probably more associated with truth than tale is.


In my opinion the OP can use either true story or tale in his headline.

An example of how tale can be used effectively in a title is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. It is set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, it has a story-like edge to it and we expect to read a recount with a beginning, a middle and an end. In Dicken's novel, the word tale has an epic flavour to it. If I were to read the following title "A Survivor's Tale", I would imagine the description of a person's long and arduous journey through life. An existence of strife and struggle punctuated with episodes of great despair but ultimately, a story of great resilience and hope.

In the end, it depends on the story being told and how it is told. If it relates a series of factual events as in a documentary, then I would choose the expression true story. If the recount is told as if it were a novel, then I wouldn't have any objections with the term tale.


Because many answers are based only on the term tale without considering the OP's original headline, I defy anyone who reads the following to believe it is a short story about fairies, elves, goblins, or fishermen adventures.


The following are all examples containing the term tale for non-fictional narrative purposes.

An emaciated man survived 16 months adrift at sea, eating turtles, birds and fish and drinking turtle blood, having floated up to 8,000 miles from Mexico to a remote Pacific atoll, it was claimed on Friday. A Norwegian researcher said that the man – who only speaks Spanish and has a long beard – was not in a good condition after his 24-foot fibreglass boat washed up on the reef at Ebon Atoll.

If confirmed, the feat would be an unbelievable tale of survival, reminiscent of the Tom Hanks film Cast Away or perhaps Ang Lee's adaptation of Life of Pi.

  • Poon Lim was a Chinese sailor man who survived 133 days alone in the South Atlantic after the British merchant ship he was serving in was sunk by German marines on November 23, 1942

King George VI bestowed a British Empire Medal (BEM) on him, and the Royal Navy incorporated his tale into manuals of survival techniques. [...] The writer Alfred Bester later stated that Poon Lim's ordeal was used in his novel The Stars My Destination, which opens with a man stranded in space.

And for fictional purposes

Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson learned to survive alone in the Canadian wilderness, armed only with his hatchet. Finally, as millions of readers know, he was rescued at the end of the summer. But what if Brian hadn’t been rescued? What if he had been left to face his deadliest enemy—winter? Author, Gary Paulsen, three-time Newbery Honor winner, raises the stakes for survival in this riveting and inspiring story as one boy confronts the ultimate test and the ultimate adventure.

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    I don't think tales are necessarily epic: fairy tales tend to be quite short, for example. – David Richerby Sep 22 '14 at 8:19
  • @DavidRicherby valid observation, but would you classify Dicken's story as being "short" because we associate short stories with the expression fairy tales? The term tale has wider usage. If we look at Kris's cited definition: tale 1A fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted. – Mari-Lou A Sep 22 '14 at 8:27
  • You claimed that "tale" implies epic. I am pointing out that this is not the case, since some tales are epic and some are not. I am not claiming that tales are always short; I'm just pointing out they're not necessarily epic. – David Richerby Sep 22 '14 at 11:58
  • @DavidRicherby I said it has an epic flavour, and you said tales tend to be short, we agree that tale can imply both things. I also said your observation was valid! – Mari-Lou A Sep 22 '14 at 12:03
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    Here is an example of how tale can be used to talk about one's life Life on the Line: One Woman's Tale of Work, Sweat, and Survival – Mari-Lou A Sep 22 '14 at 12:21

Tale might evoke associations with the established terms fairy tale or tall tale and tale-bearer that are undesirable in this context, because they could appear to call into question the truthfulness of (and possibly the motivations behind) the survivor's account of his experiences.


The etymology of "tale" is that it is "something told".

So a tale is, specifically, a kind of story which is (or was) 'told' out loud, orally: so a "bed-time story" might be a tale (because it's 'told' to children); in the labour camp survivor's "tale" we're to imagine that the survivor "told" the story, in person, or to a witness, or that they "lived to tell their story".

Whereas "story" is from "history", which implies something more written, perhaps more factual, probably a less personal narrative.


To me, a tale is obviously not as factual as a story; a tale could be about a little mermaid or emperor's new clothes.

A story is quite an everyday word, however. People say what's the story same as how do you do -- this could be why you wanted something different.

How about phrases, bottom line, day book, clock card, you name it?

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