Finding out new meanings #1: the verb to tell

B1 I want this to be the first post of a series that I’ll call “finding out new   meanings”: we’ll look at some common words and learn meanings that students do not immediately relate to these terms.

Today I want to focus on the verb ‘to tell’. In its most common usage, to tell simply means ‘to say something to someone’*. However, today I want to explore other meanings of the verb ‘to tell’.

TELL MEANING ‘TO SEE /UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE’

Have a look at these sentences:

  1. Mary and Lucy look so much alike that I can’t tell who is who.
  2. I’m really bad with languages, I can’t tell the difference between Spanish and Italian.

In both the above examples, ‘tell’ is used to express the inability to see / get the difference between two people / things.

TELL MEANING ‘TO UNDERSTAND or BE SURE’
  1. I can always tell when my boyfriend is lying.
  2. You can tell that she loves him.

In the first sentence, we use ‘tell’ to say that we’re able to understand something. However, bear in mind that you can’t simply replace ‘understand’ with ‘tell’:

  • I can understand English (CORRECT)
  • I can tell English (INCORRECT)
  • I couldn’t understand what he was saying (CORRECT)
  • I couldn’t tell what he was saying (CORRECT)

In the second example, ‘tell’ is used to say that something is clear / obvious: you can clearly see / It is obvious that she loves her.

TELL MEANING ‘TO RECOGNIZE’
  1. I couldn’t tell whether that was my friend Mark or not.

In this case the meaning of ‘tell’ is similar to that of the phrasal verb ‘to make out‘. ‘Make out something’ simply means to struggle to see/hear/understand something: it was dark so I couldn’t make out who he was.

If you wanted to use ‘tell’, the above sentence would change into it was dark so I couldn’t tell who he was.

In all these instances, ‘tell’ is used together with the modal verb ‘can’ to indicate the speaker’s inability to do something.

‘I COULDN’T TELL YOU!’

This is another common expression with the verb can + tell. It’s used when the speaker feels they are not in the position to provide you with some information. Look at this dialogue:

A: Excuse-me, do you know when the work will be finished?
B: I couldn’t tell you!

I hope you’ve found out something new about this word.
Talk soon,
Deb

*Notice that ‘to say’ has to be followed by the preposition ‘to’, this is not the case with ‘to tell’:

  • I told Anna I was going to be late >> to tell someone something;
  • I said I was going to be late >> to say something;
  • I said to Anna that I was going to be late >> to say to someone something;

So it’s not correct English if you say ‘I told to Anna I was going to be late’ or ‘ I told I was going to be late’ or ‘I said Anna etc.

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