Today on Ask a Teacher, we answer an email from Nathaniel in South Sudan. He asks:
Question: What is the difference between phone, call and ring?
Answer: Hi, Nathaniel! That is a great question. We use these words when talking about telephone calls and other kinds of communication.
All three words can be used as nouns and have a verb form. Today, I will be looking at the verb forms.
The Scottish-born scientist and engineer Alexander Graham Bell is famous for his invention of the telephone. In 1876, the United States government approved a patent on Bell’s telephone. The move gave him the exclusive right to the technology. So no one else could manufacture or sell his invention for a number of years.
Since that time, people have shortened the noun "telephone" to "phone" and started to use it as a verb, meaning to call someone on a telephone. In Britain, it is common to hear people use the verb "ring" for this same purpose. But there is no rule that requires a speaker of American English to only use "phone" or a speaker of British English to only use "ring."
Here are some examples of how we use "phone."
Can I phone my wife? She would know the answer to this.
She couldn't stop to phone for help.
You may hear the verb "ring" when someone talks about the sound of alarm bells.
I heard the doorbell ring.
The sign said, 'Ring for Service.'
In addition, a common two-word verb is "ring up." We may ask a store employee to "ring up" our purchase, that is, enter the prices on a machine.
Google’s Ngram Viewer is an online tool to learn about words. It looks at the words from Google books to show how often people use words over time and in what places.
We used the Google Ngram Viewer to compare British and American usage of the three words. The first ngram looked at British English. It found that the word 'ring' was a little more popular than 'phone.'
The second ngram looked at American English. It found that 'phone' is more popular than 'ring.'
In both online tests, the word "call" was much more common than either ‘phone’ or ‘ring’. English speakers often use "call" to talk about using the telephone to contact someone, such as in the following sentence:
Call the police.
Even more often, we use it in a general sense, as in “give a name to” or “label.”
They do not want us to call them pirates, but they are stealing.
Do you call that bag of potato chips your dinner?
We also use “call” in the sense of “ask” or “request.”
Let’s call a meeting for tomorrow afternoon.
So here is my advice on using phone, call and ring:
You can use any one of them to refer to making a telephone call. “Call” is the most common in American English. As you learn more English, you will learn many expressions that include “call.” I’ll share one with you here:
Let’s call it a day.
That is, our work is done; let’s take a deep breath and relax.
And that’s Ask a Teacher!
I’m Jill Robbins.
Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
alarm - n. a device that makes a loud sound as a warning or signal
bells – n. a hollow usually cup-shaped metal object that makes a ringing sound when it is hit
online – adj. connected to other computers
pirate - n. someone who attacks and steals from a ship at sea
chips – n. a thin, hard, and usually salty piece of food
refer – v. to direct someone’s attention to
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