The difference between say and tell is quite known. Most of the grammar sites/books make it very clear and I understand this topic.

According to those sources, you tell someone something and you say something. Now, I'm pasting a portion from another site:

Usage rules for Tell and Say

Tell is used only to instruct or inform, and when the receiver of the information is included as an object of the verb. Do not use for quotes.

Has she told you the good news, yet?
Please tell us your name and occupation.
The police officer told him to stop. [NOT The police offer told him, "Stop."]
Can you tell me what happened?

Now, when it comes to tell the truth I have read some instances where the object is NOT present.


Good people always tell the truth

Where is the object then? You always tell someone something. You never tell something. You say that.

Okay, so here is the quote I made and always tell (to!) others. Which version is better and grammatical?:

You should tell the truth to those who deserve it OR
You should tell those the truth who deserve it

If I go by books then the latter one seems correct - you tell someone something because we know she told me what was happening over she told to me what was happening.


2 Answers 2


The rule you are quoting is wrong, or, at least, is too absolute.

There are many instances where "tell" can be used without an indirect object. The following sentences are perfectly idiomatic English:

As a novelist, he is great at telling stories.

It is morally wrong to tell lies.

The old woman told fortunes for a living.

If you tell the truth, you won't be prosecuted.

The verb tell does need an indirect object when it's discussion a particular piece of concrete information. For example:

After hours of torment, he told them the combination of the safe.

You need the "them" in that sentence. You don't need it if the information is one of a list of more abstract concepts:

To pass the time, he told them tales of his experiences in the war.

Here, "them" is optional, because "tale" is an exception to the rule, just like truth, lies, stories, and fortunes.

  • This is just a half answer! :)
    – Maulik V
    Jul 22, 2014 at 15:25
  • What do you think about the quote in concern?
    – Maulik V
    Jul 23, 2014 at 5:18

Refer to the OED:


And note the difference between direct and indirect objects:


Tell can have a direct object:

"Tell the truth."

where truth is what is being told, or an indirect object:

"Tell John."

where John is the indirect object, or both:

"Tell John the truth."

Where John is the indirect object - the receiver of the information- and the truth is the direct object - the information being transmitted.

As for your sentence, I prefer the first version, but I would replace who with that, e.g.

You should tell the truth to those ( people ) that deserve it.

Plenty of source suggest that who or that are both correct usage in this case. I prefer that because it specifically refers to a group. William Safire wrote an "On Language" column years ago on the subject but I doubt that particular column is online.

I would re-arrange the second version to make it less awkward:

You should tell those ( people ) that deserve it the truth.

In this case, that deserve it refers to those, not the truth, and so should be next to each other. I still prefer the first version because of the structure:

You should tell ( action ) the truth ( object of the action ) to 
those ( indirect object of the action ) that deserve it ( limiter on
indirect object ).

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