Saying and telling

The verbs say, tell, talk and speak all have to do with communication. The differences are subtle, and non-native English-speakers often confuse the words. Since they’re so often used with quotations — the building blocks of journalism — it’s especially important for journalists to get them right.

Which one to use in a particular sentence depends on its syntax  — the way words are put together to express a thought. More specifically, it depends on whether the sentence involves a direct object, an indirect object or none at all.

Transitive verbs take objects. In that sentence, the subject is verbs, the verb is take  and the object — whatever the verb acts upon —  is objects.  Intransitive verbs take no object.

Say in all its tenses is a transitive verb. You can’t just say; you have to say something. In a sentence using a quote, that entire quote, whether direct or indirect, often functions as the direct object:

New York-based jazz musician Zayn Mohammed, 28, said the highly commercialized recording industry leaves little room for artists to follow their own muse. The (indirect) quote is the direct object of said. What did he say? That the highly commercialized . . . 

In another passage from that story:

Saxophonist Jon Gordon said he feels the same. “My hope is that it will help us to move the scene forward to whatever it’s going to become,” he said.  What did Gordon say? First, that he feels the same; second, the quote.

From another student:

“It’s just immoral, frankly,” Nadler said, explaining why he voted against the Farm Bill. Same here.

But, also from that story:

“They just want people to starve, and it’s disgusting,” Nadler told photojournalists. 

Tell can be transitive or intransitive (Yes, he told me); the difference is that  it requires an indirect object, as in Tell to me a story. You say something to someone, but you tell someone something.

“This music reminds me of my early days in Cho Lon,” Dat Ha, the restaurant’s manager, told me when I gradually became a familiar face. If the writer were not injecting herself into the story, it would read: “This music reminds me of my early days in Cho Lon,” Dat Ha, the restaurant’s manager, said. (Or: . . . said Dat Ha, the restaurant’s manager. Where to put said is often a  matter of your professor’s, editor’s or publication’s preference.)

Talk and speak are intransitive verbs. They take neither direct or indirect objects.  (She talks about grammar an awful lot. Last week she spoke for an hour!) Is this sentence correct or incorrect?

He sighed and talked me, “I know the Japanese media.”

Incorrect. It has an indirect object (me) and a direct object (the quote), so talked is wrong on two counts. Instead:

He sighed and told me, “I know the Japanese media.”


He sighed and said to me, “I know the Japanese media.”

You can talk or speak to someone. You can talk about something. But you can’t talk someone or talk something. (But you can speak the words or, as Hamlet advises the players, speak the speech.)

Still confused? For an interactive quiz to test your understanding, click here.










2 Responses to “Saying and telling”

  1. Telly Halkias
    March 16, 2014 at 12:37 am #

    Dear Ms.Nottle,

    I have read this blog from time to time and recommend it to my own undergrad English and Journalism students.

    Today I’d like to offer this up:

    I recently received an e-mail from a reader:

    “I know you’re a good writer. But in your article in today’s Sun, you wrote “None of them seem clear.” I’d write, “None of them seems clear.” None is the subject, not them. ”

    I typically answer all reader correspondence, but have not yet replied to this one.

    None is indeed singular–or plural in construction. The usage referred to the words “prospects” in the preceding sentence:

    “There, sophistry gives way to a ticking clock that shocks an unsuspecting man with the prospects before him. None of them seem clear.”

    Because of this context, “none” is plural in construction and thus “seem” is in agreement.

    Or….maybe I have just stared far too long at too much copy and need a vacation.


    Thank you for your time and professional consideration.

    Very respectfully,

    Telly Halkias

    • Diane Nottle
      March 16, 2014 at 10:57 am #

      Excellent question! The answer is: it depends, chiefly on whatever stylebook you’re using. Technically, “none” means “not one,” which would be singular. But it can also mean “not any,” which implies plural. (“Not any of these questions were answered to my satisfaction.”) The New York Times stylebook specifies that “none” takes a plural verb; AP Style differs, saying “none” is generally singular but can be plural “if the sense is no two or no amount: None of the consultants agree on the same approach. None of the taxes have been paid.” When in doubt, follow style.