Decir and Contar are both translated as to tell. It can often be confusing for students to know which one to use.
We use contar when what is told has details, e.g. a story, a joke, an anecdote. For example, if we ask someone to tell us about their day we would generally ask:
Cuéntame cómo te ha ido el día.Tell me how your day went.
The answer to this question could be quite detailed, for example:
Pues por la mañana he tenido una reunión con el jefe, luego he llamado a varios clientes y he cerrado algunos contratos. A medio día he comido con Lola en la cafetería de enfrente de la oficina y .... etc
Well, in the morning I had a meeting with my boss, then I called some clients and closed some contracts. At midday I ate with Lola in the cafe opposite the office and... etc.
If what we want to know is something specific, an individual item of information, then we would use decir:
Dime a qué hora te tengo que recoger.Tell me what time I have to pick you up.
The answer to this would be a simply informative reply, for example:
A las dos y media.
At two thirty.
In indirect speech we can use both decir and contar:
Me dijo que había comido con Lola en la cafetería.She told me she'd eaten with Lola at the cafe.
Me contó que había comido con Lola en la cafetería.She told me that she'd eaten with Lola at the cafe.
However, the second example using contar, the implication is that the speaker is giving this information as a new piece of information for the listener and/or that it is more "gossipy" information.
- Eres idiota. - ¿Qué has dicho?- You are an idiot. - What did you say?
Javier cuenta unos chistes buenísimos.Javier tells some very good jokes.
Mi profesora dice que soy el más listo de mi clase.My teacher says that I'm the smartest in my class.
Necesito contarte un secreto.I need to tell you a secret.
Mañana nos diremos adiós en el aeropuerto.Tomorrow we'll say goodbye at the airport.
When the verb decir works as a command followed by a subordinate clause with que ... the verb contar cannot be used. For example:
Mis padres me dijeron que volviera antes de las once.My parents asked me to return before eleven. (seen as a command)
This would be incorrect:
Mis padres me contaron que volviera antes de las once.
See also Different meanings of the verb contar
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