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Usage Glossary: A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T U V W Y

describe/say/tell

Describe, say and tell are all verbsof communication. Describe means "explain the detailsof an item or a situation." If the receiver of the description ismentioned, the receiver must be preceded by to.


The design team described the goals of theproject.

The team described the goals of the projectto the assembled managers.


Say is used to introduce a message. The message (usuallya noun clause or a quotation) must be contained in the sentence, butthe receiver of the message is optional. If the receiver of themessage is included, it must be preceded by to.


They said that the project had beencanceled.

They said to us, "We promise to complete thefinal report by next Monday."


Tell is used to explain to whom a message was given aswell as to introduce the message. The receiver of the message isusually present in the sentence. If the receiver precedes themessage, the preposition to is not used. If the receiverfollows the message, to must precede the receiver.


They told us why the project had beencanceled.

They told the long, sad story to themembers of the board, who sat stoically waiting for thebottom line.


Long messages, such as stories or anecdotes, are typicallyintroduced with tell, whereas say is used forsingle sentences or words.

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