I am familiar with this rule:

1.Tell something to somebody
2. Say something

But what about his sentence from Melville's Bartleby Scrivener?

“I know you,” he said, without looking round,—“and I want nothing to say to you.”

  • I would say the more common usage of tell is tell someone something and tell someone to do something. Sep 23, 2014 at 12:22
  • As it says in [this literary critique][books.google.co.uk/… of OP's specific cited example, Bartleby's utterance is a strange phrase. And I must admit that even with a degree in Literary Studies, I find it hard to follow the "justification" in that link. For all practical purposes want is simply "incorrect" (it should be have). Sep 23, 2014 at 14:05
  • Since the source is somewhat archaic, I'm tempted to read the word want in the sense of lack. But then it still makes no sense.
    – The Photon
    Sep 23, 2014 at 23:29

1 Answer 1


To tell and to say are very flexible in their usage. A rule of thumb: when you tell something, you are giving particular information, and when you say something, you are letting your opinion be known or sharing your thoughts.

These are all idiomatic:

Psssst! ... I have a secret to tell you!

Angry mother to disobedient teenage daughter:

Come downstairs this instant, young lady! I have something to say to you!

The locution Bartleby uses is somewhat archaic today. Bartleby is saying that he does not want to have anything to do with the person. He does not want to find himself in a situation where the two of them are conversing about anything.

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