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Roger Lustig, commenting the headline "Paul Ryan calls on Maxine Waters to apologize" (Sunlen Serfaty and Katherine Sullivan,CNN 6/26/2018):

At first I thought he'd gone over to her house and said he was sorry.

If only.

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. languagehat said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 8:13 am

    This seems pretty thin gruel. "A calls on B to do X" is perfectly standard English and I guarantee nobody was confused by it. The screenshot is not necessary since the headline is not going to be changed.

  2. Ellen K. said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 8:35 am

    "Calls on" for visiting someone at their house seems to me standard English as well, it's the practice of doing it that's not standard anymore.

  3. Theophylact said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 8:39 am

    "Calls for" would be what I would expect.

  4. languagehat said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 8:40 am

    "Calls on" for visiting someone at their house seems to me standard English as well, it's the practice of doing it that's not standard anymore.

    Well, sure it's standard English in the sense that it's in the dictionaries and most people know what it means, but I have a hard time imagining anyone much under retirement age using it. Hell, I've just retired and I don't use it myself. It's pretty fusty.

  5. David Donnell said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 10:02 am

    In the uncivil language of our time, "Unbunch your panties you stupid Russian bots! Nobody's confused. It's just facking funny!!!"

  6. Zeppelin said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 10:44 am

    Not a native speaker, admittedly, but I did get the "wrong" interpretation on my first reading.
    My second thought, primed by that first interpretation, was "that's an uncharacteristically quaint way of putting it…do they mean 'call on the phone', maybe?". And only after that did I think of the intended meaning.

  7. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 11:13 am

    "Calls on" sounds like he made her stand up in Congress and do it. I agree that "calls for" seems more natural if he's simply expressing an opinion about what she ought to do.

  8. David L said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 11:22 am

    The phrase may also qualify as a bit of nerdspeak, at least in terms of political reporting. Politicians are always calling on someone or something to do this or that, but they are not in the habit of dropping in for tea and scones unannounced.

  9. Robert Davis said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 1:19 pm

    Or an old favorite: Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

  10. Chris C. said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 1:27 pm

    "However, Ms. Waters' footman informed Mr. Ryan that she was not at home, so he left his card behind."

  11. KevinM said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 4:18 pm

    The "call on" or "call upon" is a hallowed political tradition. It is an attempt to unilaterally insert oneself into an issue or controversy, generally to gain visibility or political advantage when one has no ability to influence actual events. As in "The East Podunk city councilman called on the President to condemn the remarks of the Freedonian ambassador."

  12. Paul Kay said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 4:49 pm

    I agree with KevinM and Gregory Kusnick. Politicians are always "calling on" other politicians to resign, recuse themselves, step down, apologize, face the facts, etc. I hear "call on X to Y" as a kind of aspirational directive, as if the speaker has some kind of authority wrt X. "Call for X to Y" is more a statement of opinion, and it doesn't need to be addressed to a person. You can call for taxes to be lowered but you can't call on taxes to be lowered. At least I can't; though surely some will differ.

  13. Anthony said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 11:43 pm

    Mr. Ryan as gentleman caller.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 28, 2018 @ 8:21 am

    I agree with multiple commenters above that "X calls on Y to Z," when X and Y are both politicians (or X is a politician and Y is a person or institution that one might expect a politician to pontificate about) is overwhelmingly likely, in journalistic registers of AmEng, to have the meaning that was intended here. So I had to work hard to even identify the possible ambiguity.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    June 28, 2018 @ 9:05 am

    I don't think that the post was meant to at all suggest there's anything not standard about the usage in the headline. It's pointing out an interesting and amusing ambiguity.

  16. D.O. said,

    June 28, 2018 @ 5:59 pm

    So long as he didn't call police on her, we can all relax.

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