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According to the definition 2 in this dictionary:

  1. phrasal verb. If you call on someone or call upon someone, you pay them a short visit. Sofia was intending to call on Miss Kitts. [VERB PARTICLE noun]

However, when I tried to use it into practice, I said the sentence "They will call on us" to my friends - some of them are native speakers - and it turned out that no one understood it. I guess the problem could be the way I use it was wrong.

So, how should the phrase call on be used to mean pay a short visit as the dictionary indicates. Is the phrase call on commonly used?

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There are two possible meanings of call on: the first meaning is still widely used in religious publications, but the second (the one that you refer to) is quite old fashioned, like calling cards.

We might call on the Wyatts,” he suggested. “They have a cottage not far from here.” - Nancy Drew: the call of the old album (1947)

It is possible to infer from NGram searches that call on declined in usage from 1940 to 1980 in the US: in the UK, the decline started in 1960 and continues to this day. This decline may be related to the introduction of the telephone, and the use of the word call related to telephone conversations.

I would only expect to see call on used in a period drama. In modern usage the word visit might be used in a formal setting, an phrases like drop in, drop by and pop in are used in informal settings.

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  • 2
    My comment about Ngrams was deleted by the mods? Was it rude? Was it off-topic? I think not. I think anyone that uses Ngrams to support their answer should include a link. What was wrong with that? – Mari-Lou A Jan 20 '18 at 14:49
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    Where is this decline? It's barely significant books.google.com/ngrams/… – Mari-Lou A Jan 20 '18 at 14:51
  • @Mari-LouA - the “call on” on Ngram actually refers to all connotations of call on, not only to “pay a visit”. But my personal impression is that it is still alive, that’s why I asked. – user070221 Jan 20 '18 at 14:54
  • @Mari-LouA, criticism duly noted and accepted. Ngram was too blunt an instrument to display the data that I was looking for in graphical form, because the religious meaning of call on dominates. I actually followied the link to google books for each Ngram and then counted the relevant usages. Slow, tedious and not very accurate. Thank you for reminding me how to show US and UK Ngrams on the same graph. – JavaLatte Jan 21 '18 at 10:35
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Several hours ago, I had written a comment underneath JavaLatte's answer asking him to include a link to the Ngram. The comment, for some unknown reason, was deleted. I shall, therefore, post the Ngram chart myself. Visitors can draw their own conclusions.

Ngram AmEng

The difference between the American English corpus (blue line) and that of the British English corpus (red line) is negligible.

enter image description here

Ngram is a helpful but not infallible tool. Google Books will include many false positives, instances where call on means to ask someone to do something, or when it refers to a vocation; e.g. "I continued pursuing God's call on my life".

In order to have examples where the meaning of call on is "paying someone a visit", I searched Google Books for the American phrase call on mom

  • This brought officers to call on mom and dad. Mom made sure George had a chat with the officers, who produced his wallet. (1999)
  • She had dropped in to call on Mom, but couldn't tear herself away when my father told her she might as well wait, since we would be right back. (1998)
  • When scientist Dunne is transferred to New York from her native Germany, she and husband McCrea pay a courtesy call on mom, who expends every effort to get them to settle in with her. (1987)

  • Our next door neighbor, Minnie Ballard, called on Mom when she wanted a chicken killed for dinner. (1996)

  • While living on Pete Swank's farm, Our dear neighbor, Levette Secrist, called on Mom one day and she wanted to know if Carl could come up to their home and help her do little chores around the house and barn. (1985)

and then the phrase called on them

  • 'On the Saturday afternoon of the week following Wiggins' little excursion to Battersea, Whitey Johnson arrived at the Bartletts' house; an unusual time for him to visit them. As I have explained, he invariably called on them on a Friday evening. As soon as I saw him ... (2012)

  • At the President's suggestion, I wrote an article for the Sunday edition of the Washington Post giving my own reasons why this was not desirable I saw a number of the legislators in both houses of Congress, called on them, explained my position to them. (2002)

  • As the month began, the German missionary, Father Augustus Gauss, called on them, coming over from Sandia in his light buggy.(2001)

  • One by one he called on them, waiting patiently in their anterooms while they conferred in panic with their advisors and their friends. When they agreed to see him he reminded them in a voice that would rather have kept it secret of all he had done for them in the past: it made quite a list. (2001)

  • However, one day when I called on them at the Wyndham, Cronyn met me in the lobby and took me up himself. In the elevator he told me what he felt I needed to know about Jessica Tandy. “When I met her," he told me, “I not only had dreams of acting opposite her, but I wanted to scour the world for plays she could star in,... (2015)

  • Mari-Lou A - I don’t understand why you posted a wiki answer and not your own answer given that the research presented is your own research and given the fact 5at your answer contrast with the above one. – user070221 Jan 20 '18 at 21:15
  • @user159691 what difference does it make? It's showing that "call on" is used in books, as recently as 2015. – Mari-Lou A Jan 20 '18 at 22:33
  • @Mari-LouA, My use of the word declined was intended to indicate that the word is still in use, but less than it used to be. In my opinion, it is less common in the UK than in the US. You have not provided links to the examples you quoted, but the only obviously British example is from "The Secret Notebooks of Sherlock Holmes". This was indeed published in 2012, but Conan Doyle's novels are set in the period 1880-1914 and, as the title implies, this book is also written in the style of that period. – JavaLatte Jan 21 '18 at 11:01
  • The examples are easily searchable, just Google the relevant phrases containing the emboldened examples. – Mari-Lou A Jan 21 '18 at 11:34
  • "called on them" shows a distinct decline since the mid 1800s: ngram – AndyT Jan 23 '18 at 15:53
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I can confirm the usage of "call on" as a way to describe a personal visit by native speakers, albeit in rather formal circumstances (a foreign dignitary discussing which meetings to hold).

The reason people have not understood you might be both because this is a somewhat old-fashioned meaning (depending on their age and circumstances, they might not have come across this phrase and will do so later in life) and because there might have been something misleading or ambiguous about your context—other things you've said.

In casual conversations like the one I imagine you've been having, a more appropriate, casual phrase would have been, "They will drop by our place tomorrow".

In general, I'd advise you not to try to use unfamiliar meanings—ones you've not encountered in real life—on the basis of finding it in a dictionary. The dictionary will give only rudimentary indications of connotations and appropriate context, if at all. Always start with a real text—either a real-life conversation, or a book, or an article, by native speakers. Then you have a context by which to judge the semantics of the situations where this particular word (or, rather, lexeme) is used.

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