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present tense: say: /seɪ/, rhymes with the letter A, and the words way, and weigh

says: /sez/, rhymes with fez

past tense & past participle: said, /sed/, rhymes with bed


The fourth most common verb in English (after the auxiliaries be, have, & do), it means speak or assert. (dire in French).

It is used in situations where a person sends a message through speech (or writing, n'en déplaise aux puristes).


say or tell ?

Say requires a sender and a message, i.e. what is said. (ce qui est dit, ou ce qu'on dit)
  • Boris didn't say anything        Boris n'a rien dit.
. It is optional to mention the receiver of the message.
. That person is introduced with the operator/preposition to.
  • Boris didn't say anything to Lily.        Boris n'a rien dit à Lily.

Tell requires a sender and a receiver (destinataire) (whom, us, them, etc.).
. Unlike with say, to is not needed to introduce the receiver.
  • Boris didn't tell Lily.        Boris n'a pas informé Lily.
. The optional direct object (COD) can be either a noun phrase (the answer, the truth, a lie, a story, ...) or an infinitival (to wait, to call back later... etc.)
  • Boris didn't tell Lily anything.        Boris n'a rien dit à Lily.
  • Boris didn't tell Lily to do anything.        Boris ne lui a pas dit de faire quoique ce soit.

reported speech

say is most frequently (or at least very frequently) used to talk about "what was said" in the past. For direct quotes this presents no problem:
  • They said "No way!"
  • They said OK.
  • They said no.
Most often though, we transpose what was said into the past tense:
  • Lily at the 10am meeting: I can't be here tonight, my flight is leaving at 7pm.
  • Boris at the 6pm meeting: Lily said (that) she couldn't be here tonight because her flight was leaving at 7pm.
If what was said was already in the past tense, we sometimes transpose to the past perfect.

tenses, aspects, modes

Say is compatible with both present & past tenses, with perfective and imperfective (continuous) aspects, and with all of the English modal verbs.
  • just sayin' = je dis ça, je dis rien. ^^