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Confusing English verbs – Say/tell/speak

There’s a certain number of verbs that can be quite confusing for English learners. Say/tell and talk/speak are all referring to the verbalization of thoughts. But why use one and not the other? This is the topic we are covering today in this article:


Say means to express something with words. This verb is used without making any reference to a particular person.


The president said at the financial forum that he would implement new policies to encourage economic growth. = He spoke these words in a conference not to a particular person/group of persons.


Tell means to give information to a specific person.


My boss told me I should improve my performance before the next performance review if I wanted to get that raise. = The conversation was between my boss and I, not with a group of people present.

Speak / Spoke

Speak is often used to mean “one-way” communication such as lectures or presentations. It is also the correct word to use when it comes to a language you are able to use.


Andy told me he was going to speak at this year’s sales conference.

Jessica is able to speak five languages.


To practice these confusing verbs, go ahead and take our mini-quiz below!