There are 2 main definitions of tell in English:

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tell 1

Pronunciation: /tel/

verb (pastand past participle told /tōld/)

1 [reporting verb] Communicate information, facts, or news to someone in spoken or written words: [with object and clause]: I told her you were coming [with object and direct speech]: “We have nothing in common,” she told him [with object]: he’s telling the truth [with two objects]: we must be told the facts
More example sentences
  • In other words, telling the plain truth probably would have been sufficient.
  • Dad was still telling me how proud he was of me.
  • One doctor told the conference he sees 50 patients a day.
inform, notify, apprise, let know, make aware, acquaint with, advise, put in the picture, brief, fill in;
alert, warn
informal clue in/up
relate, recount, narrate, unfold, report, recite, describe, sketch, weave, spin;
utter, voice, state, declare, communicate, impart, divulge
1.1 [with object and infinitive] Order, instruct, or advise (someone) to do something: tell him to go away
More example sentences
  • With a standing order, you tell your bank to pay a fixed sum at a regular interval to an organisation or individual.
  • The jury normally receives an order from the court telling it to accept the laws as they are.
  • The same lawyers told him to bring charges to a civil court and the sports court of arbitrage.
instruct, order, command, direct, charge, enjoin, call on, require
literary bid
1.2 [with object] Narrate or relate (a tale or story).
Example sentences
  • Talking about bears leads him to tell an amazing bear story, which becomes our film with Harris narrating as he tells the story.
  • They do that by telling great stories and tales from wherever they are.
  • The autobiographical narrator tells her story not because of her ‘mundane life’ but in spite of it.
1.3 [with object] Reveal (information) to someone in a nonverbal way: the figures tell a different story [with two objects]: the smile on her face told him everything
More example sentences
  • Within families a lot happens on the periphery and the most telling details are often seen out of the corner of one's eye.
  • Lauren relates her story in a simple time sequence and gives telling details which make the narration gripping.
  • However, a more telling statistic would be loss and damage rate per 1,000 weapons passes.
reveal, show, indicate, be evidence of, disclose, convey, signify
1.4 [no object] Divulge confidential or private information: promise you won’t tell
More example sentences
  • And if Alan has whispered any secrets, she's not telling!
  • Please don't tell, because I don't want to lose readers.
1.5 [no object] (tell on) informal Inform someone of the misdemeanors of: friends don’t tell on each other
More example sentences
  • ‘There are many cases where students have been told they'll be kicked out if they don't tell on their friends,’ says Manfred.
  • Luckily for both of us, Tanya was not in the room at the time so she would never know about any of what happened because I knew that none of my friends were going to tell on me.
  • And then you can send off vindictive messages to the spammers, telling them you told on them.
inform on, tell tales on, give away, denounce, sell out
informal blow the whistle on, rat on, squeal on, finger
2 [with clause] Decide or determine correctly or with certainty: you can tell they’re in love
More example sentences
  • She can tell that for once Jason is surprised and she decides that that is a good thing.
  • You can tell that they're starting to like you, that they want to trust you.
  • I can tell that this is going to be one of those long-winded, rambling posts about nothing at all.
ascertain, determine, work out, make out, deduce, discern, perceive, see, identify, recognize, understand, comprehend
informal figure out
British informal suss out
2.1 [with object] Distinguish (one person or thing) from another; perceive (the difference) between one person or thing and another: I can’t tell the difference between margarine and butter
More example sentences
  • He can't tell the difference between the truth and what his lawyer is telling him.
  • Personally, I can't tell the difference between diamonds and bits of clear broken glass!
  • He's the only person at the bar who can't tell the difference between beer and water.
distinguish, differentiate, discriminate
3 [no object] (Of an experience or period of time) have a noticeable, typically harmful, effect on someone: the strain of supporting the family was beginning to tell on him
More example sentences
  • We just did six gigs in seven days so it's told on him a bit.
  • The pressure told on both sets of players as the game got bogged down in a midfield melee with precious little invention from the teams.
  • Confinement and want of fresh air was beginning to tell on her health and spirits.
3.1(Of a particular factor) play a part in the success or otherwise of someone or something: lack of fitness told against him on his first run of the season
More example sentences
  • Five pit stops against the winner's two was what told against the other two pilots.
  • His personal failings also seem to have increased the strain and told against him.
  • I believe one of them spoke of how her size had told against her when auditioning, even though her voice had been quite acceptable.
4 [with object] archaic Count (the members of a series or group): the shepherd had told all his sheep
More example sentences
  • He told the number of girls and officers standing in a line.
  • He told the number of school that they had established, and how they obtained their scholars.


(Especially in poker) an unconscious action that is thought to betray an attempted deception.
Example sentences
  • But I think you could waste a poker lifetime looking for tells like those.
  • Authentic tells are unbeknownst to the player and are unconscious.
  • This book teaches you how to interpret tells, such as subtle shrugs, sighs, shaky hands, eye contact and much, much more.



as far as one can tell

Judging from the available information.
Example sentences
  • Well, does he understand, as far as you could tell, what kind of trouble he potentially is in unless he changes some of his positions?
  • And so, what's the basic solution, as far as you can tell?
  • What is this lawsuit, as far as you can tell, really about?

I tell you (or I can tell you)

Used to emphasize a statement: that took me by surprise, I can tell you!
More example sentences
  • Can I tell you, though, what else we saw were people who were on the verge of dying.
  • Now, I tell you, does this not sound like a movie that is well worth seeing?
  • Although I tell you, I am so very much not at my swiftest after I've been asleep for a couple of hours.
assure, promise, give one's word, swear, guarantee

I (or I'll) tell you what

Used to introduce a suggestion: I tell you what, why don’t we meet for lunch tomorrow?
More example sentences
  • You can be optimistic, but I'll tell you what, don't let your guard down.
  • Listen, if you don't like it, I'll tell you what: sublet me your place.
  • But I'll tell you what, I'll gladly donate my tax cut to a worthy charity if you will.

I told you (so)

Used as a way of pointing out that one’s warnings, although ignored, have been proved to be well founded.
Example sentences
  • If you are against the war, you look at those images and say, ‘See, I told you so.’
  • I hate to say ‘I told you so yet again,’ but, I told you so.
  • No matter how constructive or well meant, this week's people aren't interested in criticism, so don't say I told you so - even if you did.

tell one's beads

see bead.

tell someone's fortune


tell it like it is

informal Describe the facts of a situation no matter how unpleasant they may be.
Example sentences
  • Her willingness to tell it like it is without apology keeps her work, no matter how widespread her critical acclaim, out of the mainstream.
  • They're saying we've told it like it is, and rather like the programmes.
  • And what if people were straightforward and told it like it is?

tell its own tale (or story)

Be significant or revealing, without any further explanation or comment being necessary: the worried expression on Helen’s face told its own tale
More example sentences
  • The frayed and severed string told its own tale.
  • The hearty round of applause told its own story.
  • Her worn and malnourished face told its own story.

tell me about it

informal Used as an ironic acknowledgment of one’s familiarity with a difficult or unpleasant situation or experience described by someone else.

tell me another

informal Used as an expression of disbelief or incredulity.
Example sentences
  • "Oh yeah, tell me another," Larry snarls.
  • So we have to take his word that it lets out less fumes than a two-wheeler (oh, yes, tell me another) and that it won't clog up our roads.

tell something a mile off

see mile.

tell tales

Make known or gossip about another person’s secrets, wrongdoings, or faults.
Example sentences
  • "You mustn't tell tales," was Grace's frank answer.
  • We all know that we mustn't tell tales – our mothers or teachers probably punished us when we did so as children.

tell it to the marines

see marine.

tell time

Be able to ascertain the time from reading the face of a clock or watch.
Example sentences
  • A supermarket worker was able to tell the time on a digital watch but not on the analogue clock in the staff canteen.
  • He reasoned that the movement of a ship was guided by skilled intelligence, and a sundial or water clock told the time by design rather than by chance.
  • I have a digital/analogue watch that tells the time in 42 countries, solar powered, alarm, stopwatch, date, waterproof to 100 metres.

tell someone where to get off (or where they get off)

informal Angrily dismiss or rebuke someone.
Example sentences
  • At 21, if I approached a 40-year-old hard-nut comedian to play my new little comedy club in York, they'd probably tell me where to get off!
  • Yeah I would have told him where to get off after he acted like a jerk about the evidence you mentioned.
  • But I told him where to get off and he hasn't spoken to me since.

tell someone where to put (or what to do with) something

informal Angrily or emphatically reject something: I told him what he could do with his diamond
More example sentences
  • The county council visited the Church Area Council and the residents' views were that they did not want them and they told them where to put it.
  • But seriously, though, if I don't like where you have got it, I can tell you where to put it, sort to speak.
  • I may very well have told him where to put his donation!

that would be telling

informal Used to convey that one is not prepared to divulge secret or confidential information.
Example sentences
  • Last year, my gifts were mostly made up of all the books that had inspired me in the previous year, coupled with small cartoon-like cards; and this year… well, that would be telling.
  • ‘One of them is quite famous but that would be telling,’ Tim teases.
  • Well, that would be telling now, wouldn't it?

there is no telling

Used to convey the impossibility of knowing what has happened or will happen: there’s no telling how she will react
More example sentences
  • He is safe and unharmed physically, but when you see people jump from buildings and been part of such a terrible ordeal, there is no telling what he may have suffered psychologically.
  • With bricks going through the windows, there is no telling what injuries could have been caused.
  • And he couldn't draw up a plan for his sculptures for one simple reason: The river supplies his materials, and there is no telling what the river will bring.

to tell (you) the truth

see truth.
Example sentences
  • ‘The only thing I fall in love with is my dog, to tell you the truth,’ he confesses.
  • I don't think there's much hate in it at all: to tell you the truth, it's actually quite interesting.
  • Well, to tell you the truth, I was actually glad they were going to eat lunch with me.

you're telling me!

informal Used to emphasize that one is already well aware of something or in complete agreement with a statement.
Example sentences
  • You're telling me. It's so hard.

Phrasal verbs

tell someone off

informal Reprimand or scold someone: my parents told me off for coming home late
More example sentences
  • Somehow he could never tell her off or scold her when she looked at him like that.
  • Richard tends to be much stricter with Lucie in general and is fed up of being the bad guy who tells Lucie off and reprimands her.
  • Teachers' leaders are now calling for a ban on mobile phones in the classroom because children are using them to text message or speak to their parents as soon as they have been told off.



Example sentences
  • I mentioned in Chapter 2 that ‘narrative display texts’, a class which includes both literary narratives and stories people tell one another, circulate because their stories are tellable, ‘worth it’.
  • Therefore, instead of a final dispensation, the story of a monster at the limit of the tellable concludes irresolutely, even incoherently.
  • Stories must be tellable in quick, simple images.


Old English tellan 'relate, count, estimate', of Germanic origin; related to German zählen 'reckon, count', erzählen 'recount, relate', also to tale.

  • In Old English tell meant ‘to count’, a sense that is still seen in the term teller (Middle English) for a bank official. The meaning ‘to disclose, reveal’ does not appear until medieval times. To tell tales out of school is to gossip or reveal secrets about the wrongdoing or faults of someone else. In Old English untold meant ‘not counted, unspecified’. In late Middle English this became ‘not able to be counted’ (untold suffering). See also marine, talk

Words that rhyme with tell

Adele, Aix-la-Chapelle, aquarelle, artel, au naturel, bagatelle, béchamel, befell, bell, belle, boatel, Brunel, Cadell, carousel, cartel, cell, Chanel, chanterelle, clientele, Clonmel, compel, Cornell, crime passionnel, dell, demoiselle, dispel, dwell, el, ell, Estelle, excel, expel, farewell, fell, Fidel, fontanelle, foretell, Gabrielle, gazelle, gel, Giselle, hell, hotel, impel, knell, lapel, mademoiselle, maître d'hôtel, Manuel, marcel, matériel, mesdemoiselles, Michel, Michelle, Miguel, misspell, morel, moschatel, Moselle, motel, muscatel, nacelle, Nell, Nobel, Noel, organelle, outsell, Parnell, pell-mell, personnel, propel, quell, quenelle, rappel, Raquel, Ravel, rebel, repel, Rochelle, Sahel, sardelle, sell, shell, show-and-tell, smell, Snell, spell, spinel, swell, undersell, vielle, villanelle, well, yell

For editors and proofreaders

Syllabification: tell

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There are 2 main definitions of tell in English:

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tell 2

Pronunciation: /tel/


(In the Middle East) an artificial mound formed by the accumulated remains of ancient settlements.
Example sentences
  • He narrowly escaped being blown up by a mine when he was exploring a tell outside the city.
  • Ancient cities are now identified by the mounds raised above the surrounding terrain, called tells.
  • In the digital elevation model the small conical mound of a tell is represented by a characteristic point pattern, superposed onto the natural topography.


Mid 19th century: from Arabic tall 'hillock'.

  • In Old English tell meant ‘to count’, a sense that is still seen in the term teller (Middle English) for a bank official. The meaning ‘to disclose, reveal’ does not appear until medieval times. To tell tales out of school is to gossip or reveal secrets about the wrongdoing or faults of someone else. In Old English untold meant ‘not counted, unspecified’. In late Middle English this became ‘not able to be counted’ (untold suffering). See also marine, talk

For editors and proofreaders

Syllabification: tell

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