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Talk, Speak, Tell, Say – Common Mistakes in English as a Second Language (ESL)

Updated on September 29, 2012
Talk, speak, tell and say might be similar but definitely not the same.
Talk, speak, tell and say might be similar but definitely not the same. | Source

Talk, speak, tell and say are words that learners of English as a Second Language or ESL have a tough time using correctly in English sentences.

Errors in using these words are quite understandable.

Talk, speak, tell and say have almost the same meanings.

Still, making mistakes in using these words can be checked.

There are certain conditions and sentence patterns that make using one of these words better than picking the others.

Below is a brief guide for using the often confused English words of talk, speak, tell, and say.

When to Use Talk

Talk and speak are often used interchangeably.

However, these two words still have differences in usage.

We use talk in the following instances:

  • When we engage in a conversation with a person or several persons, then we talk.
  • When we are casually communicating with people, then we are talking to these people.

Note that we often add to or with after talk in sentences.

Using to, however, is more common than using with.

Examples of Talk in Sentences

  1. He is talking with Peter. They are finding ways to fix the servers.
  2. He talked to us about the website. Oddly, it was hacked again.

When to Use Speak

Generally, speak and talk are used in similar ways.

Still, there are conditions in which using speak is better than using talk.

  • When we address an audience through one-way communications like delivering speeches or announcements, then we speak, not talk, to the audience.
  • When we refer to communications done in formal settings, then it is more suitable to use speak than talk.
  • When we point to the language or languages a person uses for oral communications, then we use speak.

Note that we often add to or with after speak in sentences.

Examples of Speak in Sentences

  1. On Christmas day, the president spoke to the people on national television.
  2. The president is speaking with his finance managers about the dire state of the economy.
  3. The president speaks three languages – English, Spanish, and Chinese.

When to Use Tell

Tell and say are frequently used interchangeably.

Still, there are conditions in which the use of one of these two words is better than the use of the other.

We use tell in the following instances:

  • When we include the name of a person receiving a message, then we use tell. The name comes immediately after tell.
  • When we report someone as stating a message, then we can use either tell or say.
  • When we express something related to instructions, then we use tell. We usually follow tell with to, an object, and an infinitive.

Examples of Tell in Sentences

  1. Tell Laura to hurry up and eat her meal.
  2. She told us that we had to move quickly.
  3. Linda told us to wait.

When to Use Say

We use say in the following situations:

  • When we include to plus the name of a person receiving a message, then we say something to that person.
  • When we directly quote somebody as stating a message, then we use say, not tell.
  • When we report someone as uttering a message, then we can use either tell or say.
  • When we are talking about the following, the usually use tell:

- future

- lie

- story

- time

- truth

Examples of Say in Sentences

  1. Mother said to Laura that she should hurry up and eat her meal.
  2. She said that we had to move quickly.
  3. Linda said, “I want to grab lunch before leaving.”

Mini Test on Talk, Speak, Tell and Say

  1. Mother _____ us not to talk to strangers.
  2. She said that _____ to people we do not know might harm us.
  3. We should just _____, “Hi! Please to meet you!” and nothing much more when meeting strangers for the first time.
  4. _____ with strangers is fine as long as we do not tell them anything personal.
  5. _____ people extremely private things about ourselves is not a very good idea.

Mini Test Answers

  1. told/tell
  2. talking/speaking
  3. say
  4. Speaking/Talking
  5. Telling

Copyright © 2012 Kerlyn Bautista

All Rights Reserved

Talk, Speak, and Tell: Explained


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    • Maria Antonia profile image

      Antoinette Lee Toscano 

      4 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      Great Hub, unfortunately many native English speakers get this wrong also. English is one of four languages that I have learned to speak but it is my first language. I find it very interesting that sometimes other Americans cut off the ends of words and use so much slang that I feel like I need a translator. I am from New York City and live in North Carolina and there are some people that I talk to that I can barely understand what they are trying to convey. It is quite sad. It took me a while to figure out what "What chu fittina do? and "Where you stay at?" mean. Maybe I am just thick in the head but until someone translated these sentences for me I could not figure out what they meant. I did feel a bit silly that I had to say that I did not understand, because one person thought that I was not from America because I could not understand him. LOL

    • ltlearning profile image


      7 years ago from Argentina

      Yes, good Hub, thaink you for sharing this english mistakes details

    • buddinglinguist profile image


      7 years ago

      Informative hub, I'll have to remember some of these when I start teaching :)

    • livingabroad profile image


      7 years ago from Wales, UK

      This is great! I am an EFL teacher and have had trouble explaining these concepts before. Not any longer! You have given great examples here which I will be sharing with my facebook page for students in Thailand. Voted up and useful. Great Hub.

    • kennynext profile image


      7 years ago from Everywhere

      Good advice. American english is a butchered up language with much slang that does not really make much sense.


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