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In normal usage(daily more-like), I use sentences/phrases such as:

  1. Water pumps are running.
  2. Switch on the fan.
  3. My system has been working for 20 days now.

Most of us use similar phrases too(even if our mother-tongue is not English, the closest match would still be among one of the three listed above).

I know that none of them are wrong. But when generally talking about electric/electronic devices or gadgets, should the verbs like running be used?

What other words are there that can be used instead?

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Running implies a kind of specific activity. Pumps can be running when they're pumping, or your computer can be running when it's generating CPU cycles of something.

When something is on, it simply means its essential parts are receiving power (probably electric). When a pump isn't running, it's probably not using power, so there is no difference in meaning. On implies that there is a kind of binary switch somewhere: it's either on or off.

Work can mean two things:

  1. When something works, it is not defective.

  2. When it is working, it is occupied working on a task. You computer has been working on a certain task for 20 days, like cracking a huge database of encrypted passwords. If it hasn't been working on specific tasks all the time, then you wouldn't say it has been working for 20 days, but rather running. Or it has been on for 20 days.

  • +1 particularly for the two relevant senses of "work". But you might consider expanding the distinction between running and on to clarify why we never say things like "I think I left the kitchen light running". I'm not exactly sure what it is about "running", since you can definitely use it for computers - and (at a pinch, maybe) televisions. So it's not quite just a matter of saying running = operating (of some device with moving parts). – FumbleFingers Apr 19 '13 at 23:08
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As for running vs left on, an appliance or piece of equipment can be left on but not running – if it's not been powered off, but it's not doing anything, either.

For example, consider my DVR: I can leave it on all day, but it would only be running if it was recording, or I was watching a movie.

The terminology can vary slightly depending on how the device is designed. If you can power a device on or off without it doing anything else, then it can be left on even when it's not running; examples would include a cell phone or a computer. However, some devices can't powered on unless they are actually doing something, like a toaster. You can't simply leave a toaster on.

Fans can be turned on, but, once they are on, they are running. You can leave a fan running, and you can leave a fan turned off. If you leave a fan turned on, though, the implication is that the fan is running – but that wouldn't hold true for a monitor.

And some devices don't really run at all. For example, I can't imagine myself saying, "the radio is running." It's hard to state a general rule that will work in all circumstances, but I would say that if the device has a motor, then it runs, and if it doesn't have a motor, it doesn't run. That's why my DVD player and my refrigerator both run, but my television and my oven are simply on.

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This varies a lot by culture. I've heard many of my foreign students that learned English in other places refer to a light being "closed" instead of "on". In America we might refer to a "closed" circuit in technical circles, but not in everyday English.

"On" means that there is some sort of power flowing. "Running" means that it is doing something. "Working" means that it is doing something productive OR that there are no problems with it's function.

Although these are subtleties, and usually you can use any of the three.

The subtleties and multiple meanings make this confusing:

"My engine is running, but I can't make the car move." In this case your engine may not be working to move the car, but it is running (burning gas and making noise). "I can't open your e-mail right now, my computer is working on something." In this case you are indicating that your computer is very busy. "My computer is working fine." Indicates there is no problem with the function of your computer, but it might not be "on" at this very moment.

If something is "not working" or "not running" it may indicate a larger problem then just needing to turn it on.

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