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I've done some research on the two words, but I can't tell their differences based on dictionary definitions. I often hear people say phone owners but then certificate holders. Do people say the opposites? If not, is there a rule or do I have to remember each phrase separately?

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5 Answers 5

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In the legal meaning of the word, when you hold an intangible legal "instrument" (usually a document of some kind) it entitles you to rights to something of value. A lienholder, for example, has a claim upon a property that was put up as surety or collateral. A concert ticket entitles you to attend the concert. But the instrument itself has vanishingly small intrinsic worth -- on a piece of modern paper with some legalese typed on it, you can't even scribble down a bawdy limerick, except maybe in the margins. It is of almost zero value as paper.

By contrast, when you own something, it is typically tangible with intrinsic value and/or utility. It might be just an ordinary tea kettle, or a collectible figurine with relatively modest intrinsic worth, or a vintage Rolls Royce and have considerable worth.

Those distinctions don't prevent people from saying things like "I own 100 shares of stock in that company." But they're actually shareholders. As with any technical term that enters common usage, these terms can lose precision.

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    You've surely made it even clearer for us learners. What do you think about the case of "job holders"? Commented May 13 at 13:33
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    @anIELTSlearner When you own something, you can usually sell it. Can you sell your job?
    – Barmar
    Commented May 13 at 13:47
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    The collocation job holder appears to have come into existence circa1900. I suspect it was not a legal term but was formed from the verb "to hold" as in "to maintain (hold) a position" but that would require some research.
    – TimR
    Commented May 13 at 14:02
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    For owning stock, nothing wrong with that — those people are both owners (they can sell the stock) and holders (they can vote at the general meeting) Commented May 13 at 15:04
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    I hold the world record for most pedantry, but I own the plaque that says I hold the record. Unless the plaque is in my hands, at which point I am holding the plaque as well.
    – Flater
    Commented May 14 at 4:57
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I own a certificate that says "Qualified Banker". I don't hold this certificate because it was held by my grandfather. Ownership of a certificate is just physical possession of a piece of paper. But if you hold a certificate, it means it is proof that you have qualified for something, or passed some test.

So owning, and holding a certificate mean different things, and "holding" is usually the important meaning.

On the other hand, "holding a phone" means to have it in your hand. If my wife hands me her phone then I might hold it, but I don't own it. I own a phone, but I'm not holding it right now (it's in my bag).

So owning and holding a phone mean different things, and "owning" is usually the important meaning.

Holding a certificate is normally different in meaning from holding a phone. Although there is some ambiguity in the first case. When I certificate says "The holder of this certificate is qualified to work in a bank", it doesn't mean anybody who has the certificate in their hand.

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  • Great answer! Can you come up with any cases where we can use both? That would definitely help distinguish them even more easily. Commented May 13 at 6:40
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    For future readers: Hold often goes with things whose value goes beyond their physical forms, e.g., licenses, passports; or things people have to work (hard) to earn instead of simply using money to own, e.g., records, licenses, jobs, sports titles, certificates. Commented May 13 at 7:10
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    I have a loyalty card from a bookshop. On the back it says "This card remains the property of the issuer", so the bookshop is the owner. I am the holder. If my sister was holding it in her hand she would be the bearer.
    – Peter
    Commented May 13 at 7:14
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    A ticket is just a bit of paper or card (or was, before the invention of e-tickets). Its value is that it entitles the holder to travel or to attend an event. Commented May 13 at 7:17
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    What @Peter said. Arguably the "owner" of any "certificate" (credit card, educational qualification, passport,...) is the issuing authority, who control and may revoke the validity of the certificate for a variety of reasons. Commented May 13 at 11:22
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When it comes to documents, you often don't own them at all. For instance, your passport is not your property, it's actually property of your country! (Check it up, if you have one, it's probably written in it somewhere.) So you are the passport holder; you aren't its owner.

Your phone, on the other hand, is something you probably actually own. You can choose to smash it with a hammer, or sell it to someone else, or paint flowers on it with a glitter pen, and everything's fine and legal because the thing is yours to do as you please.

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Owning usually implies that we can dispose of it, for example by selling it: It is ours. An example is a New York City Taxi Medallion. People own them; they are valuable (until self-driving cars arrive) and can be sold.

Holding a title or a license implies that we have been granted a right or privilege or title but it is not (usually) ours to sell.

In casual use the borders are often blurred — "own a drivers license" gathers only a handful of hits in google — but none in ngram; "hold a drivers license" does though. Conversely, "holding a taxi medallion" gathers only a handful hits; "owning" one is much more common.

Side note: In North Carolina it's an offense to "represent as one's own a drivers license [...] not issued to the person so displaying same". Something can be your own even though you don't own it!

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Owner means that it is yours. Homeowner, car owner, landowner, business owner, etc. You can control it, make changes to it, sell it, etc.

Holder means that you possess it. Certificate holder, job holder, pencil holder.

To use your example of certificate holder...that is the entity that literally possesses the certificate of insurance. They don't necessary control the policy or receive benefits. They just have the proof of insurance. They could have gotten it from a subcontractor or whatever.

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