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According to Cambridge Dictionary a phone call (also phonecall) is something that you make, and provides the following examples

  1. Will you excuse me? I need to make a phone call.
  2. I've got a few phone calls to make.

Collins Dictionary defines phone call as:

If you make a phone call, you dial someone's phone number and speak to them by phone.
3. Wait there a minute. I just have to make a phone call.

However, there's also the expression “give someone a call” which Cambridge says:

give someone a call/ring

Longman offers numerous examples and suggest that call can be substituted with buzz and in British English with either ring or bell. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say “give somebody a bell”, but the BBC's website Learning English confirms that it is indeed a valid British expression.

The snippet below is taken from an English language course book called Complete Advanced by Cambridge Press. In this exercise, students are asked to replace the verb underlined with give or make or mark it as correct.

Questions 6 and 7

  1. In my boss's absence, I give telephone calls to customers, clean desks, and write emails.

The correct answer for Q6 is “I make telephone calls…”. Why would “give a call to a customer” or “give telephone calls to customers” be incorrect? When we give a call to someone, we manually select their number and “dial” it.


Is there a reason we don't say "make someone a call” even when it involves “dialling” i.e. making a telephone call? And vice-versa, if we can “give someone a call”, why can't we “give a phone call” too?

P.S Q7 is correct!

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  • Before telephones even existed, you could give him a shout (to get his attention, after which you might tell him something). But the process of telephoning someone (especially in the early years) probably seemed so much more involved and technical that you had to make it happen (set it up, whatever). And once an idiomatic usage gets established, it can endure long after the original "reason" is irrelevant and/or long forgotten. Oct 29, 2023 at 19:48
  • @FumbleFingers you might be onto something there, it suspiciously looks like an answer to me. I have tried to explain it to an Italian private student that to give a phonecall means someone has to receive it whereas making a phonecall emphasises the action. Can't say I really convinced myself.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 29, 2023 at 19:54
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    I think your approach is at least part of the "explanation" (to the extent that idiomatic usages can be "explained" at all :) Making anything (a call, a fuss, an excuse, amends,...) only requires specifying the thing[s] made. But giving someone a call requires specifying both direct (the call) and indirect (the recipient) objects. Hence Please excuse me - I have to make some calls is fine, but it wouldn't work with ...I have to give some calls. And Please excuse me - I have to give some people some calls is just a contrivance too far! :) Oct 29, 2023 at 20:21
  • "To give someone a bell" is indeed used in the UK. It think Aussies use it too. As to the explanation of why we say it one way and not another, I suppose it's because these are idioms (not literal), and many idioms are fixed expressions, and you can't really mess with them, and if you do, they sound odd.
    – Billy Kerr
    Oct 30, 2023 at 14:03
  • "When we give a call to someone" is generally expressed as give someone a call. Give a customer a call. Frankly, I think asking why we don't say "make someone a call" is just a waste of time. Like the answer below says make a phone call and give someone a call. Two different idioms.
    – Lambie
    Oct 30, 2023 at 16:14

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A lot of your initial reasoning is around the expression 'to make' a phone call, which is different from 'to give' someone a call.

'Give (someone) a call' follows the same construction as other idiomatic expressions relating to contacting someone. "Give (someone) a knock" means to call at their door; "give (someone) a shout" means to get in touch by any means. Other slang expressions for making phone calls include "give (someone) a ring" and "give (someone) a buzz".

This would suggest that "give (someone) a call" developed from existing idiomatic language for communication, whereas to 'make' a call is language that developed specifically in connection with the technology of telephony. This is further evidenced by the fact that, when we use the verb to give, there has to be an object and a recipient either stated or implied. This language focuses on who you are contacting as much as, if not more than, the means of doing so. That isn't the case when we say we are 'making' a call - it is entirely optional whether or you not to choose to say to whom the call is being made (eg "Excuse me while I make a call", or "I'm going to make a call to my parents"). Arguably, 'making' calls focuses on the use of the phone.

There is no reason at all why you can't say "give (someone) a phone call" - it's just more common to say 'call'. Likewise, you can "make a call" without using the word 'phone'. The word is tacit, or implied.

Also, there is a difference between the way we use 'call' as a verb in connection with the telephone compared to calling at their door. Certainly in British English we would say "I'm going to call my dad" for a phone call, but "I'm going to call on my dad" to mean call at his door. However, in business, in-person visits to clients may be referred to as "calls" (a noun) in the same way that instances of phone contact are. This makes it more likely that someone saying "I'm going to make some calls" may need to qualify it by stating either phone calls or perhaps house calls. Certain contexts require specificity that others do not.

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  • Aren't "Give me a [phone] call" and “Give someone a [phone] call” the same thing? Is there any reason why we can't say "I give telephone calls to customers"?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 29, 2023 at 20:35
  • The word (tele)phone is generally implicit / unstated, not explicit. Oct 29, 2023 at 20:40
  • @Mari-LouA yes they are, and no there isn't - although the latter sounds odd... perhaps because it sounds like a job description where 'making calls' sounds more business-like.
    – Astralbee
    Oct 29, 2023 at 21:04
  • @Mari-LouA. I don't think you can, but I don't know why not. It's just not idiomatic. Not in my dialect anyway. Maybe because 'to' implies motion toward, which doesn't happen in a phone call.
    – Evene
    Oct 30, 2023 at 7:50
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    I like the edit :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 30, 2023 at 9:16

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