Speak, talk, say or tell?

Confused man thinking, skyblue background, headline reads: speak, talk, say or tell?

These are four very closely related verbs. We use them all the time. After all, these are the go-to verbs when we want to talk about speaking. Pun intended.

But what’s the difference between them and how should we use them?


To make things easier, we’ll start by analyzing these two extremely similar verbs.

Speak is used when one person addresses a group or another person…

  • He spoke at the meeting.
  • She spoke to me yesterday.

Or when they express themselves.

  • She must be speaking the truth.

It might also refer to being able to use a certain language.

  • ‘What language are they speaking?’ ‘I think it’s Korean.’
  • I speak Polish, English and Spanish.

Talk might suggest that two or more people are having a conversation.

  • We talked on the phone until midnight.

Other than that, the meaning of talk often overlaps with that of speak. Nonetheless, the former is preferred in more formal contexts. 

  • She never talks at the meetings.
  • They were talking in Spanish. — but we can’t say ‘I talk Polish, English and Spanish.’
  • You’re talking nonsense!


This pair of verbs is also extremely similar when it comes to meaning. Although, we can observe differences in the structure and the arguments each verb requires, i. e. we say something (to somebody) — stating who receives the information is optional; in turn when we tell somebody (something), we can’t omit the receiver.

  • He told me 'hello’. — He told 'hello’. — We can’t remove the pronoun me.
  • He said ’hello’ (to me). — the ’to me’ part is optional.

Say is used with words or statements. Structure: say something (to somebody).

  • “Is anybody there?”, he said.
  • I just stopped by to say hello.
  • He said something in French.

Tell is used when giving information. Structure: tell somebody (something).

  • Please tell us your name and occupation.
  • “I feel sick,” he told his mom. — but we’d say “I feel sick”, he said to his mom.
  • If you see her, tell her hello for me.

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Ten post ma 2 komentarzy

  1. Huilen

    Hello! This is very useful, I’m preparing for a CAE test and this comes in handy. Cheers!

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Paweł Małojło

lektor i bloger

Języki to moja życiowa pasja. Jestem nauczycielem angielskiego oraz hiszpańskiego. Na co dzień posługuję się tymi językami oraz moim ojczystym polskim. Poza tym znam niemiecki na poziomie B2. Na moim blogu piszę o językach oraz podróżach.
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