The Grammarphobia Blog

Ask and it shall be told

Q: Your discussions last month on bring & take and come & go remind me that my children used to have trouble with ask & tell, inverting  them frequently during one period in their lives (I forget how old they were, but it used to amaze me). I hadn’t thought about that in years.

A: Generally, as you know, “telling” implies making a statement while “asking” implies posing a question. None of the usual senses of “tell” (explain, say, utter, relate, declare, inform, reveal, narrate, communicate, etc.) convey the meaning of “ask.” And vice versa.

Of course, “asking” and “telling” are intimately related. When we ask something, we might use the word “tell” (as in “Tell me your secret”). And one verb is often a response to the other (“He asked me, so I told him”).

The only overlap we can think of is in the sense of calling on someone to do something—you can “ask” him or you can “tell” him. Of course, the meanings differ, since it’s more courteous to “ask” someone to do something than to “tell” him.

Perhaps the politeness issue is what confused your children (as in “Don’t tell your brother to pass the butter; ask him”). But there’s no telling where children’s early notions about language come from!

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, Pat mentions that as a child she used to think that ordinary speech was a recent invention and that people once communicated by singing. Why? Because her parents would often listen to operas on TV when she was a toddler.

Check out our books about the English language