I said to him.
I told him.

Why can't we use to after tell, when we are using to after say?

  • 1
    Note that it's almost impossible to come up with a context where your first "sentence" would be valid, but the second one could be a perfectly normal response to, for example, "Does John know we're supposed to be meeting in the bar before the concert starts?" – FumbleFingers Apr 1 '13 at 18:16

It's mostly just an idiomatic tendency that we normally include to after say, but not after tell. But note that the basic syntax of something like...

I told the truth to you

...is perfectly okay (if dated), and there's nothing "ungrammatical" about those 1410 written instances.

If OP really wants an "explanation" for the tendency, I'd suggest it's because although both to say and to tell normally require at least one "indirect object" (the thing said), to tell normally requires a second indirect object (who it was told to).

You can quite reasonably say or tell something to someone, but you can't normally just tell something, without saying who you're telling it to. Syntactically, the verb to tell is more strongly associated with the person being told.

That's to say, it's inherent in the meaning of the verb to tell that there must be a listener (whereas you can say something even if nobody hears it). Thus we don't need a preposition to clarify the relationship between speaker and listener with to tell; over time we've gradually tended to discard it as unnecessary.

Note: to tell is a ditransitive verb. It takes a subject (the person doing the telling) and two objects (the person told, and what was told). In that (default) order, no preposition is necessary or normal...

I told you a lie
Tell me a story (imperative: implied subject "You" in front)

Sometimes you can put "the person told" after "what was told", but then you need the "to" preposition...

I told a lie to you
?Tell a story to me

The '?' before that last one indicates that not all native speakers would find it very natural today. Such constructions were more acceptable in the past, probably before the modern-day prepositionless default sequence became established.

It's not really worth "learning" how to use tell something to someone - just be prepared to accept it if you encounter it, but use tell someone something yourself.


I cannot really answer the why part of your question. That's the way we speak and that's how languages are. Certain parts of any language, including English, have more an idiomatic rather than grammatical touch to them. And this is one of them. Usually the rule is to use tell with a personal object and say without a personal object. So,

You say something

You tell someone something

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