having force or effect; effective; striking: a telling blow.
revealing; indicative of much otherwise unnoticed: a telling analysis of motivation in business.

Origin of telling

First recorded in 1850–55; tell1 + -ing2
Related formstell·ing·ly, adverbun·tell·ing, adjective

Synonyms for telling



verb (used with object), told, tell·ing.

to give an account or narrative of; narrate; relate (a story, tale, etc.): to tell the story of Lincoln's childhood.
to make known by speech or writing (a fact, news, information, etc.); communicate.
to announce or proclaim.
to utter (the truth, a lie, etc.).
to express in words (thoughts, feelings, etc.).
to reveal or divulge (something secret or private).
to say plainly or positively: I cannot tell just what was done.
to discern or recognize (a distant person or thing) so as to be able to identify or describe: Can you tell who that is over there?
to distinguish; discriminate; ascertain: You could hardly tell the difference between them.
to inform (a person) of something: He told me his name.
to assure emphatically: I won't, I tell you!
to bid, order, or command: Tell him to stop.
to mention one after another, as in enumerating; count or set one by one or in exact amount: to tell the cattle in a herd; All told there were 17 if we are correct.

verb (used without object), told, tell·ing.

to give an account or report: Tell me about your trip.
to give evidence or be an indication: The ruined temples told of an ancient culture, long since passed from existence.
to disclose something secret or private; inform; tattle: She knows who did it, but she won't tell.
to say positively; determine; predict: Who can tell?
to have force or effect; operate effectively: a contest in which every stroke tells.
to produce a marked or severe effect: The strain was telling on his health.
British Dialect. to talk or chat.

Verb Phrases

tell off,
  1. to separate from the whole and assign to a particular duty.
  2. rebuke severely; scold: It was about time that someone told him off.
tell on, to tattle on (someone).

Origin of tell

before 900; Middle English tellen, Old English tellan to relate, count; cognate with Dutch tellen to reckon, count, Old Norse telja to count, say, Old High German zellēn; akin to tale

Synonyms for tell Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for telling

Contemporary Examples of telling

Historical Examples of telling

  • "And that would be all the same as telling Alcibiades himself," rejoined Milza.


    Lydia Maria Child

  • But I got him too straight—let a drunken man alone for telling the truth when he's got it in him.

    The Spenders

    Harry Leon Wilson

  • She made a half apology for not telling me that she was going to New York.

  • She saw her all the time while Connie was telling her the secret.

  • And what I overheard in the armoury--about a telegram--telling me--putting me out of my misery?


    William J. Locke

British Dictionary definitions for telling



having a marked effect or impacta telling blow
revealinga telling smile
Derived Formstellingly, adverb



William, German name Wilhelm Tell. a legendary Swiss patriot, who, traditionally, lived in the early 14th century and was compelled by an Austrian governor to shoot an apple from his son's head with one shot of his crossbow. He did so without mishap



verb tells, telling or told

(when tr, may take a clause as object) to let know or notifyhe told me that he would go
(tr) to order or instruct (someone to do something)I told her to send the letter airmail
(when intr, usually foll by of) to give an account or narration (of something)she told me her troubles
(tr) to communicate by words; utterto tell the truth
(tr) to make known; discloseto tell fortunes
(intr often foll by of) to serve as an indicationher blush told of her embarrassment
(tr; used with can, etc; may take a clause as object) to comprehend, discover, or discernI can tell what is wrong
(tr; used with can, etc) to distinguish or discriminatehe couldn't tell chalk from cheese
(intr) to have or produce an impact, effect, or strainevery step told on his bruised feet
(intr sometimes foll by on) informal to reveal secrets or gossip (about)don't tell!; she told on him
(tr) to assureI tell you, I've had enough!
(tr) to count (votes)
(intr) dialect to talk or chatter
informal, mainly US to tell the truth no matter how unpleasant it is
tell the time to read the time from a clock
you're telling me slang I know that very well
Derived Formstellable, adjective

Word Origin for tell

Old English tellan; related to Old Saxon tellian, Old High German zellen to tell, count, Old Norse telja




a large mound resulting from the accumulation of rubbish on a long-settled site, esp one with mudbrick buildings, particularly in the Middle East

Word Origin for tell

C19: from Arabic tall
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for telling



"mound, hill," 1864, from Arabic tall, related to Hebrew tel "mount, hill, heap."



Old English tellan "to reckon, calculate, consider, account," from Proto-Germanic *taljanan "to mention in order" (cf. Old Saxon tellian, Old Norse telja, Old Frisian tella "to count, tell," Dutch tellen "to count, reckon," Old Saxon talon "to count, reckon," Danish tale "to speak," Old High German zalon, German zählen "to count, reckon"), from root *talo (see tale). Meaning "to narrate, relate" is from c.1000; that of "to make known by speech or writing, announce" is from early 12c. Sense of "to reveal or disclose" is from c.1400; that of "to act as an informer, to 'peach' " is recorded from 1901. Meaning "to order (someone to do something)" is from 1590s. Original sense in teller and phrase to tell time. For sense evolution, cf. French conter "to count," raconter "to recount;" Italian contare, Spanish contar "to count, recount, narrate;" German zählen "to count," erzählen "to recount, narrate."

I tolde hyme so, & euer he seyde nay. [Thomas Hoccleve, "The Regiment of Princes," c.1412]

Telling "having effect or force" is from 1852.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Idioms and Phrases with telling


In addition to the idioms beginning with tell

  • tell apart
  • tell a thing or two
  • tell it like it is
  • tell it to the Marines
  • tell me
  • tell off
  • tell on
  • tell someone where to get off
  • tell tales
  • tell time

also see:

  • do tell
  • kiss and tell
  • show and tell
  • something tells me
  • there's no telling
  • thing or two, tell a
  • time will tell
  • which is which, tell
  • you never can tell
  • you're telling me

Also see undertold.

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.