What's the difference in meaning and intention between:

A) There's no way to say if she was poisoned.


B) There's no way to tell if she was poisoned.

  • There's no way to tell a Lutheran from a Methodist. – Hot Licks Dec 3 '20 at 1:29
  • Didn't shed any light on the difference. – black-clover Dec 3 '20 at 1:36
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    @MoziburUllah It would be more normal to say "There's no way to say whether [or not] he is lying" whereas "There's no way to tell if he is lying" is standard. However "... tell whether..." is not normal English. – BoldBen Dec 3 '20 at 5:53
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    @BoldBen - I see nothing wrong with “There’s no way to tell whether he’s...” – Jim Dec 3 '20 at 7:03
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    @black-clover Please edit your question to include what you found when you looked the words up in a dictionary or two. The community will help you understand what is unclear there; but we need to know what you already know. – Andrew Leach Dec 3 '20 at 8:50

In usage, announce, say, tell, report forms a sequence of synonyms going from most direct to most indirect. When one announces something, the connotation is that the speaker speaks in person. When one reports something, it can be done via documents. There are exceptions, such as sending letters that announce the arrival of a baby, but even that carries the idea of some kind of herald.

The extremes of the sequence tend to be more literal, whereas the semantic range of say and tell includes ideas other than communication, ideas such as ‘knowing’. This is how your example comes across.

Between say and tell, “say” tends to be slightly more direct and literal. “I cannot say which I prefer” can refer to ambivalence, but context can also flip the meaning to “not allowed to mention it”. Switching to tell weights the sense more strongly towards ‘ambivalence’, although “cannot tell you” flips it other way.

The key is to determine whether say/tell is in the active voice or in what’s known as the ‘middle’ voice - are they ‘speaking’ to someone else, or are they ‘speaking’ to themselves?

In your example, both options are middle-voiced, and both mean “don’t know”. If you replace “if” with “whether”, though, it is possible to construe the “say” variant as “not allowed to tell you”.

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