A telling point

The verb “to tell” is quite widely used and versatile in English, but comparatively rarely used by non-natives.

There may well be synonyms that can be used instead of “tell”, but they don’t always work so naturally and can be in the wrong register. I also get the impression that Dutch writers avoid what they suspect (incorrectly) is a slangy or informal word.

  • to indicate or give an indication:
    (“show” and “let know are good alternatives too)
    “This tells you that the meat is cooked through.”
  • to narrate:
    “Let me tell you a story”
    “He told me a right pack of lies”
  • to order or give instructions:
    “I told you to water the plants!”
  • to inform or give information:
    “I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works.” (The Mad Hatter)
  • and numerous other more complex words: advise, report, declare and mention all come to mind as candidates.

Another gap of a week without posting! The real world’s been intervening again, I’m afraid. But to make it up to you, I’ve added another page grouping useful blog items together, of which this is one: the Words you don’t use enough.

Prevalence: high. It’s not a word that’s front of mind for most Dutch authors. Or disregarded as too informal.
Frequency: high. Liable to turn up several times in a single document. Sciencey ones in particular.
Native: no. These underused words are natural to us.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

3 thoughts on “A telling point

  1. Clare has also pointed out that on the occasions when Dutch people do use the word “tell”, they have a tendency to use it without the indirect object (saying for instance “they told that…” instead of “they told me that…”), just as a straight synonym for “say” or “state”.


  2. Another excellent point! That’s a prime example of one of those things that too easily slip through the QA net.

    I get the feeling Dutch speakers might assume “tell” is used just like its cognate “vertellen” when in fact, “tell” in English usually trumps “say” and “speak” any day: these in turn are much frequent in native-sounding English than their ubiquitous counterparts “zeggen” and “spreken”. And it seems “talk” suffers a similar fate. It’s the same of issue of people unquestioningly opting for cognates, to make life easier.

    I’m increasingly alarmed (crest fallen?) by all the times “via” is cropping up in texts produced by Dutch natives and in translations: “The tickets are sent VIA the ticket office that is reachable VIA the email address that is available VIA the link”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not just Dutch natives — I’ve noticed my EN proofreaders have tended to “correct” a lot of terms natural to me such as “by” or “through” to via lately…


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