Vocabulary: Tell (but not what you think)

Vocabulary: the verb ‘tell’
Intermediate to advanced (B1-C1)

You probably know how to use ‘tell’ in sentences like ‘He told me where to find a good restaurant.’ However there is another really useful meaning of ‘tell’.

This meaning is about perceiving, knowing or deciding something for sure or noticing a difference. Let’s look at some examples.

Sitting at a table in a pub:
Which beer is mine?
I can’t tell because they look the same.

In a shop, looking at handbags:
Do you think it is made of leather or plastic?
If you smell it, you can tell it is plastic.

Referring to identical twins:
Can you tell which one is Sarah?
No, I can’t tell them apart. They look exactly the same to me.

Talking about a film:
I can tell that this film isn’t going to be any good. The acting is really bad. I don’t think I’ll bother to see it.

Talking about someone:
I can always tell when she is lying because she starts biting her nails.

Talking about the weather:
You can tell it’s going to rain because the clouds get really dark and there’s a gentle wind.

In the kitchen:
Shall I use butter or margarine?
I don’t mind. I really can’t tell the difference.

Note that it is often used with ‘can‘, like other verbs such as ‘see’ and ‘hear’ e.g. ‘I can’t see his face.’ or ‘I can’t hear you. Please speak up.’


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