Basic+ Word of the Day: tell

tell (verb) past tense: told LISTEN

Tell me a story.

If you tell someone something, it means that you say or explain something to them.

  • He told me the plan. (=He explained the plan to me.)
  • I told her she was wrong. (=I said to her that she was wrong.)

If you tell someone to do something, it means that they have to do it.

  • The teacher told the students to be quiet.

We use tell (and not say) with some words, for example story. If you tell someone a story, it means that you say the story to them.

  • You need to tell them a story before they go to bed.

If you tell the truth, it means that you say something that is true.

  • You have to believe me – I’m telling the truth!

If you tell someone a secret, it means that you say something to them, but you don’t want other people to know about it.

  • Come here. I want to tell you a secret.

Don't confuse it with

We usually use tell when there is a person in our sentence, and say when there isn’t. For example: I told you it was a bad idea. (The person in this sentence is ‘you.’) I said it was a bad idea. (There is no person in this sentence.) With some words, we always use tell and never say. For example, we always say, “I’m telling the truth.” (“I’m saying the truth” is not correct.)

In pop culture

How I Met Your Mother is a TV show about a man’s life before he had children. In the year 2030, the man is telling his children a story. The story is about how he met their mother. You can see the start of the show in this video. When the girl asks, “Is this going to take a while?” it means, “Is this going to be a long story?” Are the children excited to hear the story?

There are other meanings of tell.
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