When using direct discourse (narration), can I use "tell" before quotation marks? Today I used it in English composition and my teacher said to me, "You should use 'say to somebody' before quotation marks and you cannot use 'tell somebody'. It is only used in indirect discourse." I think "tell" is right and other verbs are to be accepted in direct discourse but I'm not sure.

I wrote: (When I see my pet dog coming to me with his tongue stuck out) I always want to tell him, "Hey, my best friend, you're so pleased, aren't you?" My teacher corrected: I always want to say to him,

  • I think this question would benefit from an example sentence or two. What did you put, and what did your teacher want you to write? – Andrew Leach Sep 28 '16 at 12:45
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    I told the boy, "Sit down right away or you will be in big trouble. I said to the boy, "Sit down right away or you will be in big trouble". Please note: whether you use I told the boy or I said to the boy, that usually comes at the end of a sentence in a dialogue. – Lambie Sep 28 '16 at 12:56
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    The use of "tell" with a question (as you have here) isn't right. You don't tell someone a question - you ask them a question, or you say something to them (which could be a question - "said" is more general). Obviously this question is rhetorical but I don't think that matters. – Max Williams Sep 28 '16 at 13:15
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    I think that you could say I always want to tell him "You're my best friend!" - note this isn't a question now. – Max Williams Sep 28 '16 at 13:16
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    Never abbreviate "somebody" to "sb" if you want anyone to treat you seriously. Write the whole word. – curiousdannii Nov 1 '16 at 15:54

Your teacher is correct. When you "tell" the subject something, it is not a conversation, it is an imperative. I can tell you Go to the store. I do not tell you "How was your day?", I ask you. A question always initiates a conversation; even if the listener is a dog who probably can't respond in English.

Where there is some ambiguity is if it's unclear whether or not I am starting a conversation, or merely recounting facts. I may say to my spouse, "I had a terrible day" and hope that she responds sympathetically. Or I may tell her "I had a terrible day" to explain my curt behavior, not expecting a response.

  • +1 for noting that the difference between tell and say to is not direct versus indirect as the OP indicates, but rather between declarative or imperative versus interrogatory. – cobaltduck Nov 1 '16 at 15:52
  • I don't disagree, but ELU prefers answers supported by relevant credible references. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 1 '16 at 16:32

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