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Tell About

On ESL websites I sometimes see instructions to students of the type ‘Tell about an experience you had this week’. To me, and I think other speakers of British English, this sounds a bit strange: we normally tell somebody about something or talk about something. I’ve checked six standard British dictionaries and can find no examples of ‘tell about’. My (British) teacher colleagues also find it odd.

At first I tended to put it down to the fact that these instructions were usually written by teachers who are not native speakers. Then I found some examples in American crime writing, and wondered if it could be a dialect thing. But I’m now finding examples in academic texts, and am beginning to assume that this is absolutely standard North American English. This one’s from a Canadian non-fiction book - Be Good, Sweet Maid: The Trials of Dorothy Joudrie - by Audrey Andrews:

“O’Brien asked Dorothy to tell about incidents that were not physical. He prompted her by suggesting she begin by telling about an incident that occurred in Glacier National Park … . She told about how Earl had frightened her to the point of hysteria …” 

This one’s from a book on social psychology -  Knowing People: The Personal Use of Social Psychology -  by Michael J Lovaglia:

“Would people rate the man as less mentally healthy if he kept personal information to himself  than they would if he told about it. They did not. In contrast to the way people rated a woman who told personal information about herself, people rated the man less mentally healthy when he told about his personal problems than when the man kept silent about his personal problems.”

And finally advice for job interviewees at

“So, when asked to tell about yourself, don’t spend too much time on the predictable answers.”

So I’d just like speakers of North American English to confirm that this use of “tell about something” without a personal object is absolutely standard for you, and speakers of British English (and similar) to confirm that I’m not alone in finding this construction strange, and that you would “tell somebody about something” or “talk about something”. 

Just another example of being “separated by a common language” perhaps.

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I'm from the US, and have lived outside Washington DC most of my life. I think "telling about" is so ingrained, one doesn't think about it. It also seems to me there is a subtle difference between the two phrases. If you tell someone about yourself you are more apt to be relating "facts and figures" (where you went to school, what you hold a degree in, etc) whereas if you are talking about yourself, its more personal information (for instance, dreams and ambitions), possibly even going as far as a little egotistical monologue.

Paula October 18, 2013, 2:44pm

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As an American, I would have to say it is dialectical. I don't use it because I can't seem to use "tell about" without inserting an objective pronoun between the "tell" and "about". Additionally, tell seems to require an object, or else the sentence will be preempted by the question, "whom am I telling this to?" In the inquiry provided, I can't tell something to nothing/no one. But, perhaps, "tell about" has an ellipsis (me)->tell (me or context required accusative pronoun) about x. I reexamined your examples to see if that was the case, and I believe so.

Jasper October 18, 2013, 7:01pm

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I am also an American. I grew up in the "Deep South" (the southern coast of Alabama), and my family and I never said "tell about" without a direct object. It was always "tell us about" or "tell me about." I think this may be more of a midwestern or northern American dialect, where German syntax has a lot more influence. I live in Milwaukee, now, one of the cities with a LOT of German construction, both physically and in the language. It's common to here someone say something like "I'm going to the store - do you want to come with?" - which sounds VERY German to me!

Jamin October 22, 2013, 10:50am

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This was an interesting one. Personally, I would never say "tell about," and I've never heard anyone say it, either. That said, I can understand it in the context of a text book or exercise, when the book writers might not want to say "tell us about" or "tell me about," because that would be even more awkward.

Oh, and I'm from New York (but have also lived in Boston and Madison, WI), since some folks brought up potential regional differences.

JL October 23, 2013, 4:49pm

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I've done a little research and posted it on my blog:

Warsaw Will October 26, 2013, 4:25am

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I'm Canadian, and have neither seen nor used "tell about" in any context! I shall be on the lookout from hereon in!

Deepti November 9, 2013, 5:35pm

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"Tell" in the beginning meant to count as in "untold millions".
"Tell" has also been used in the sense of "recount" for hundreds of years.
In German the same word "zaehlen" = count, and "erzaehlen" = recount.
I think in German one can use "tell about" wihout a direct object; but maybe I'm wrong.
Maybe people using "tell about" in English have picked it up from German-speakers or are themselves translating from German word-for-word.
See here:

and note the Englisch in the fourth paragraph.

jayles November 9, 2013, 7:41pm

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Going by Ngram, it certainly seems to occur more in American writing than in British writing, but there's a huge spike in the forties. Considering its use seems to be so marginal, I'm wondering if this can be put down to one or two writers: Upton Sinclair, who published just about one book a year in the forties, was particularly fond of it.

PITE does strange things when I put in an Ngram URL (can we use <a href="">HTML tags</a> here? I think not), so just google Ngram Viewer and enter:

he told about:eng_us_2012,He told about:eng_us_2012,he told about:eng_gb_2012,He told about:eng_gb_2012

she told about:eng_us_2012,She told about:eng_us_2012,she told about:eng_gb_2012,She told about:eng_gb_2012

and you'll see what I mean.

Warsaw Will November 10, 2013, 12:28am

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At first as an American of some years I thought, Why, that's awful! I never say that. But then after seeing some examples I realized I have been hearing and reading "tell about" all along, although not in sophisticated speaking or writing. I associate it with educational settings, maybe business settings too. That is an interesting spike in the 1940s, Warsaw Will; a look at Upton Sinclair's Wikipedia entry shows he published a book a year (or more) during the 1930s too, but maybe he helped get the spike started then.

providencejim November 19, 2013, 5:16pm

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Hi providencejim - in the post on my blog (link above) I list the instances of tell about in Sinclair's books, but I'll put them here as well - 68 in all. On my blog there are links to the examples in Google Books.

World's End 1940 - 5
Between Two Worlds 1941 - 2
Dragon's Teeth 1942 - 1
Wide is the Gate 1943 - 7
Presidential Agent 1944 - 3
Dragon Harvest 1945 - 10
A World to Win 1946 - 10
A Presidential Mission 1947- 3
A Giant's Strength 1948 - 16
One Clear Call 2 1948 - 4
Oh Shepherd Speak 1949 - 7

Warsaw Will November 20, 2013, 11:45am

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Warsaw Will, I was curious why A Giant's Strength, a play of just 52 pages, would have such a large number of "tell about" usages. I looked at your link and also did my own Google search in the text on a page not in Polish, and found a curious result: Although 16 instances are reported, in the only three passages shown by Google, none has the phrase highlighted (or unhighlighted). Then I tried The Sound and the Fury and got the figure of 35 hits for "told about" but the shown passages in fact did not have that phrase, but rather bolded examples of "told" and "tell" alone.


providencejim November 20, 2013, 1:21pm

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@providencejim - Ah! The vagaries of Google Books. I've just had a quick check through the links I gave, and I they are all verifiable (showing the actual examples) except for A Giant's Strength. I think this is to do with the different ways Google Books show books, depending, I imagine, on the permissions they get. Incidentally, I don't think it makes any difference whether the domain is .pl or .com.

There are, I think, four types of view - full view, preview, snippet view and no preview. The first two have full search facilities, where not only do they show the quote highlighted, but where you can open up the pages. All the examples I gave are 'previews' (and so verifiable) except for A Giant's Strength, which is in 'snippet view', where it seems to be pot luck whether the quote shows or not. I admit I took Google's figures at face value here, but there seems to be no way to check. In no preview, there is no search facility at all.

I take it you're talking about Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. There are a couple of preview versions here, but something odd is indeed happening. Normally if you put your search term in quotation marks, it will only come up with the exact phrase, as in all the preview versions of Upton Sinclair's works.

I've just entered "he told about" (in quotation marks) into Google Books Search, and checked all ten results on the first page. All all of them show only the complete phrase, not all instances of the individual words (although with one of them you have to tweak it a bit).

But for some reason this is not happening with the Faulkner; I have no idea why. If you enter "he told about" faulkner, however, the fourth entry is a Faulkner Reader, and if you click on that, there are three verifiable examples of "he told about":

"This is how he told about it seven weeks later"
"And now he told about that"
"He told it; they told him it was Saturday again and paid him and he told about it"

Thanks for the tip; I'll have to investigate Faulkner more.

Some of the strange things that happen seems to depend on how the invisible digital text (not the photographic one you see) is treated. For example I've been doing quite a lot of research into 18th century books, where the letter *s* is often represented by what looks like an *f*. Sometimes these are interpreted in the digital text as an *s*, sometimes by an *f*, presumably depending on who made the transcription. It is this underlying digital text that seems to be used for the search facility, so when I can't find *sound* for example, I've got used to trying *found*, just in case.

Warsaw Will November 21, 2013, 10:55am

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@Warsaw Will: Ironic that the one novel I chose to try out the search function in Google Books turns out to be some kind of anomaly. At least we know Faulkner did not avoid using "he told about" ;-).

providencejim November 21, 2013, 3:17pm

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@providencejim - I've been doing a bit of digging, and there's quite a bit in Faulkner, so I've added a section on him to my post, with some details and links. So thanks for the tip. Incidentally, while most of the 'Preview' views worked OK, there were another couple like "The Sound and the Fury".

Warsaw Will November 24, 2013, 4:15am

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I grew up in Ohio in the 1950s and 60s. I recall the construction "tell about" in school assignments such as "tell about a book you like." I do not recall hearing it spoken, even by the teachers who would use it in writing. Normally one would say, "Tell the class/me/us about…"

Steve Lin November 26, 2013, 10:55pm

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