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TALK v SPEAK v SAY v TELL

An explanation with practice by Bibi Baxter

THE CONTENTS OF THIS PAGE

  • My thanks to Marilyn Roberts, a teacher in South Korea, for mentioning student difficulties with this complex subject.  

  • Accuracy is important;  if there are any errors on this page, please report them to Bibi 

    • My gratitude to Thomas Sebastian, BSC, Tidel Park, Chennai for pointing out an error on this page.

    • My gratitude to Colin Knaggs, an independent English teacher, Botucatu SP Brazil, for pointing out errors on this page.

 

GENERAL OVERVIEW

TALK, SPEAK, SAY, TELL:  As a general rule, these verbs

  • can often have more-or-less the same meaning if the construction is changed accordingly (see the examples which start in the next box)

  • can vary considerably if used idiomatically, or as a phrasal verb (see the practice below)

SPEAK = TELL (different constructions)

  • Speak to him now = Tell him now

  • Speak to as many people as you can = Tell as many people as you can

SAY = TELL (different constructions)

  • Say Ďyou want to marry meí = Tell me Ďyou want to marry meí

SPEAK = TALK (same construction)

  • He is (in the middle of) speaking/talking to John

However, you cannot use SAY & TELL unless you change the construction

  • He is (in the middle of) saying something to John

  • He is (in the middle of) telling John something

TALK v SPEAK v SAY v TELL used in the imperative

  • SPEAK is often used in the imperative with an adverb or adverbial phrase
    • Speak quietly, etc.
    • Speak as loud as you can
  • TALK is rarely used in the imperative, but can carry a negative message
    • Talk to him if you must, (but I donít want you to) (=If you insist on speaking to him, do so)
    • Donít talk (=Say nothing)
    • Talk among yourselves   
  • TELL is often used in the imperative for messages 
    • Tell him I need some money
    • Tell him I will be back soon
    • Tell him Iíve gone to the shops
  • SAY is used in the imperative for wanting something said to you
    • Say something (to me) please (=speak to me )
    • Say something nice (= tell me something nice)
    • Say yes/Say no (= tell me you want/don't want to)

Let's + SPEAK = Let's + TALK (same construction)

  • Letís speak to him now = Letís talk to him now

However, you cannot use Let's + unless you change the construction

  • Letís tell him now

  • Letís say something to him now. 

NOTE:  Let's = Let us

TALK v SPEAK v SAY v TELL + about

  • talk about something. = speak about something

  • tell someone about something

  • say something to someone about s.t.

PRACTICE

(talking v saying v telling v speaking)

1 John was ........................  something to Peter about us when we knocked on the door.

2. John was ........................  about us when we knocked on the door. 

3. John was ........................  Peter about us when we knocked on the door. 

4. John was ........................  about us when we knocked on the door.

Answers

TALK v SPEAK v SAY v TELL used in phrasal verbs

When used as phrasal verbs, TALK, SPEAK, SAY, TELL will almost certainly differ in meaning

  • to talk down to someone

  • to talk away (to someone)

  • to talk someone round

  • to talk things over

  • to tell someone off

  • to speak up for someone

  • to speak up

  • to speak for someone

  • to speak out about something

 

PRACTICE

INSTRUCTIONS:

  • Replace the underlined words with a phrasal verb from the box above

  • Pay attention to the construction as word order may differ from the words you are replacing.  

  • You may also need to conjugate the verb according to tense & person

1.  Raise your voice a bit! ................................. I canít hear what you are saying.  

2.  Harry was chatting ................................. so intently to his girlfriend on the phone that he didn't notice his mother enter the room.

3. He told finally revealed  .................................

4. Initially, she refused to go to her son's wedding, but her husband persuaded her to change her mind.  .................................

5. Jennifer found that her new boss had a bad habit of being condescending towards her in front of colleagues.  .................................

6. The headmaster reprimanded the young lad  .................................

7. As Ellie was too shy to say what she wanted, her brother told us instead. ............................

8. When Jeremy was accused of stealing, Joshua was the only one to voice support for him. ............................

9. It was such a shock, we haven't decided what to do next.  We will discuss it ............................  before we come to the decision.

Answers

TALK v SPEAK v SAY v TELL used in idioms

PRACTICE

INSTRUCTIONS:

  • The exercise has been divided into two sections:  SAY v TELL and TALK v  SPEAK

  • Replace the underlined words with a suitable idiom from the box below

  • Pay attention to the construction as word order may differ from the words you are replacing.  

  • You may also need to conjugate the verb according to tense & person

SAY idioms v TELL idioms

  • "Can you please carry this shopping to the taxi for me?"  "It will be accomplished immediately! ......................................................."

  • "If it rains for any more, there will be floods."  "That's obvious"   .......................................................

  • "Sorry I'm late."  "Well, people always say   .......................................................:  Better late than never."

  • "Your suitcase is very heavy!"  "I am already aware of that!  ......................................................."

  • I refuse to move home just just because you have decided it.   .......................................................

  • Goodness!  ....................................................... You've certainly lost weight! Have you been on a diet?

  • John's sister always lets his mother know when he does something wrong, in the hope that he will be punished  .......................................................

  • Susan tends to fabricate  ....................................................... in order to feel important.

  • This meeting will be an opportunity for you to voice your opinion. .......................................................

  • When the old man asked Peter to help him out of his chair, it was accomplished immediately.   .......................................................

SAY idioms & TELL idioms

  • as the saying goes

  • have oneís say

  • That goes without saying

  • I say!

  • on one's say-so

  • no sooner said than done = it will be/was accomplished immediately

  • to tell tales = to let someone know when someone does wrong in the hope that they will be punished.

  • youíre telling me = I am already aware of that.

  • to tell (tall) stories

 

SPEAK idioms v TALK idioms

  • "Is Des an expert on computers?"  "No, he isnít!  Whatever he says about computers, he's talking nonsense .......................................................;  he has absolutely no knowledge of them whatsoever!"

  • "I need to buy some bread from the shop."  "That reminds me! .......................................................  Did you know that brown bread is better for you than white bread?"

  • "My mother lets me stay at home when she goes away for the weekend."  "It's nice she trusts you, but in fact ......................................................., the law states that children under the age of 14 must not be left at home alone."

  • "Where's your boyfriend, today?"  "Oh, we have quarrelled ......................................................., so he has gone to the pub."

  • At a wedding:  "Does anyone have a reason why these two people should not marry?  If so, this is your last chance to say anything."  .......................................................

  • Fiona moved from group to group at the party, engaging in pleasantries ....................................................... with as many people as she could.

  • His attitude demonstrates without words .......................................................; that he has no respect for authority.

  • His body language says so much .......................................................;  it's obvious he doesn't want to help us.

  • I have been asked to give an informal speech ....................................................... to the Woman's Institute about making jam.

  • I think you could be right generally ....................................................... speaking.

  • It's time you stopped mincing your words .......................................................you've been far too polite for too long.

  • Phew!  It has taken me 30 minutes to get away from the door-step salesman.  He was so talkative, he could talk incessantly  .......................................................!

  • Small-minded people with boring lives gossip ....................................................... about people with interesting lives.

  • That reminds me .......................................................;  I havenít sent John a Christmas Card.

  • The boy has done wrong again;  it's time you reprimanded him.......................

  • The tutor has praised our daughter so much ......................................................., we believe she will do very well in her course.

  • We've beaten about the bush for too long;  this matter now calls for some stark facts ........................................................

SPEAK idioms & TALK idioms

  • to speak oneís mind

  • it speaks for itself

  • it speaks volumes

  • to speak well of someone

  • strictly speaking

  • in a manner of speaking

  • to not be on speaking terms 

  • some plain speaking

  • Speak now or forever hold your peace

  • to indulge in idle talk
  • to engage in small talk
  • to talk the hind legs off a donkey
  • talking of something or someone
  • to talk through oneís hat
  • to give someone a talking to
  • to give a talk

Answers

 

Key for :  TALK v SPEAK v SAY v TELL + about

  1. John was saying something to Peter about us when we knocked on the door. (the recipient of the info is Peter)

  2. John was talking/speaking about us when we knocked on the door. (the recipient of the info is unknown)

  3. John was telling Peter about us when we knocked on the door. (the recipient of the info is Peter)

  4. John was talking/speaking about us when we knocked on the door. (the recipient of the info is unknown)

 

Key for :  TALK v SPEAK v SAY v TELL used in phrasal verbs

  1. Speak up  I canít hear what you are saying
  2. Harry was talking away so intently to his girlfriend on the phone that he didn't notice his mother enter the room.

  3. He told finally spoke out about the problem which was bothering him.
  4. Initially, she refused to go to her son's wedding, but her husband talked her round.
  5. Jennifer found that her new boss had a bad habit of talking down to her.
  6. The headmaster told the young lad off for breaking the window with his football.
  7. As Ellie was too shy to say what she wanted, her brother spoke for her.
  8. When Jeremy was accused of stealing, Joshua was the only one to speak up for him.
  9. It was such a shock, we haven't decided what to do next.  We will talk things over before we come to the decision.

  • to talk down to someone = to be condescending towards someone

  • to talk away (to someone) = to chat (to someone)

  • to talk someone round = to persuade someone to change one's mind

  • to talk things over = to discuss something 

  • to tell someone off = to reprimand someone

  • to speak up for someone = to voice support for someone 

  • to speak up = to raise one's voice

  • to speak for someone = to represent someone/to speak on someone's behalf

  • to speak out = to complain = to voice one's opinion

 
 

Key for :  TALK v SPEAK v SAY v TELL used in idioms

<>()<>

Key for TELL idioms  

  • John's sister always tells tales

  • "Your suitcase is very heavy!"  "You're telling me!""

  • Susan tends to tell tall stories in order to feel important.

  • to tell tales = to let someone know when someone does wrong in the hope that they will be punished.

  • youíre telling me = I am already aware of that.

  • to tell (tall) stories = to fabricate

<>()<>

Key for SAY idioms

  • "Sorry I'm late."  "Well, as the saying goes:  Better late than never."

  • This meeting will be an opportunity for you to have your say.

  • "If it rains any more, there will be floods."  "That goes without saying"

  • I say!  You've certainly lost weight! Have you been on a diet?

  • I refuse to move home just on your say-so.

  • "Can you please carry this shopping to the taxi for me?"  "No sooner said than done!"

  • When the old man asked Peter to help him out of his chair, it was no sooner said than done.

  • as the saying goes = people always say

  • to have oneís say = to voice oneís opinion

  • That goes without saying = That's obvious

  • I say! = goodness!

  • on one's say-so = just because you have decided it

  • no sooner said than done = it will be/was accomplished immediately

<>()<>

Key for SPEAK idioms

  • It's time you spoke your mind;  you've been far too polite for too long.

  • His attitude speaks for itself;  clearly he has no respect for authority.

  • His body language speaks volumes;  it's obvious he doesn't want to help us.

  • The tutor has spoken so well of our daughter, we believe she will do very well in her course.

  • "My mother lets me stay at home when she goes away for the weekend."  "It's nice she trusts you, but strictly speaking, the law states that children under the age of 14 must not be left at home alone."

  • I think you could be right in a manner of speaking.

  • "Where's your boyfriend, today?"  "Oh, we are not on speaking terms, so he has gone to the pub."

  • We've beaten about the bush for too long;  this matter now calls for some plain speaking

  • At a wedding:  "Does anyone have a reason why these two people should not marry?  If so, speak now or forever hold your peace."

  • to speak oneís mind = to not mince one's words

  • it speaks for itself = it demonstrates without words = it requires no explanation

  • it speaks volumes = it conveys a lot of information

  • to speak well of someone = to praise someone

  • strictly speaking = in fact

  • in a manner of speaking = so to speak = generally speaking

  • to not be on speaking terms = to have quarrelled

  • some plain speaking = some stark facts

  • Speak now or forever hold your peace = this is your last chance to say anything.

  <>()<>

Key for TALK idioms  

  • Small-minded people with boring lives indulge in idle talk about people with interesting lives..

  • Fiona moved from group to group at the party, engaging in small talk with as many people as she could.

  • Phew!  It has taken me 30 minutes to get away from the door-step salesman.  He was so talkative, he could talk the hind legs off a donkey!

  • "I need to buy some bread from the shop."  "Talking of bread, did you know that brown bread is better for you than white bread?"

  • "Des seems to be an expert on computers."  "Whatever he says about computers, he's talking through his hat;  he has absolutely no knowledge of them whatsoever!"

  • The boy has done wrong again;  it's time you gave him a talking to.

  • I have been asked to give a talk to the Woman's Institute about making jam.

  • to indulge in idle talk = gossip

  • to engage in small talk = to exchange pleasantries which are not deep and meaningful

  • to talk the hind legs off a donkey = to talk incessantly = to be very talkative

  • talking of something.= that reminds me ....

  • to talk through oneís hat = to talk nonsense = to be ignorant of the subject one's pretending to know

  • to give someone a talking to= to reprimand someone

  • to give a talk = to give an informal speech

<>()<>

 
 
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