Calling out sick

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"With government shutdown threatening paychecks, more TSA agents calling out sick", NBC News; "TSA Workers Are Calling Out Sick as the Government Shutdown Rages On", Popular Mechanics; "Passengers at Sea-Tac miss flights as TSA agents call out sick amid government shutdown", KIRO 7; "TSA says increase in officers calling out sick hasn't impacted travel", WCNC; "Hundreds of TSA screeners, working without pay, calling out sick at major airports", Associated Press; "TSA Screeners Are Calling Out Sick", Bloomberg; "More TSA agents call out sick amid shutdown", Reuters; etc. etc.

Mark Dowson writes:

In my brit English it would be "calling in sick", by analogy with an employee being told to "call in when you arrive at the work site". Is this a brit English v. US English distinction?

I don't think so — the phrase I'm familiar with is "[call] in sick" and Google ngrams agrees:

…as does COCA, which finds 390 instances of [call] in sick, as opposed to 7 instances of [call] out sick.

So what's going on with all the TSA employees calling out sick?

My guess is that the "out" belongs with "sick" rather than with "call" — that is, the critical thing is that they're "out sick", i.e. "out due to (alleged) sickness", not that they've dutifully registered this fact with their employer (which is probably done via a web app rather than a phone call, though it's still called "calling", just as we still "dial" keypads…).

You can't gracefully say that they're "calling in out sick", so "calling out sick" it is.

 



53 Comments

  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 8:55 am

    It's puzzled me, too, and I'm an American. I have also said and heard "calling in sick."

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 9:05 am

    See https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/call-in-sick-or-call-out-sick?fbclid=IwAR3CDuAf3k3d43Q1wi9dL64_1Pz8B8P53V1QODoP-4DRfJztOLKy-9_Er30 for additional data.

    I wonder whether this usage, limited as it is, began with sick-outs (labor actions) in the 1960s. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=sick-out&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Csick%20-%20out%3B%2Cc0

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 9:09 am

    I don't remember hearing this before either. In alt.usage.english, people have pointed out that it seems to occur mostly on the East Coast from Massachusetts to Maryland, where it can be about as common as "call in sick".

    https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?geo=US&q=call%20out%20sick,call%20in%20sick,call%20off%20sick

    Given that, I'm surprised it's not more familiar at Penn, but then I hardly know anything about Philadelphian sociolinguistics.

    Incidentally, I'd say there's a mislogication or what used to be called a "bull" in the headline "Hundreds of TSA screeners, working without pay, calling out sick at major airports". The screeners who call in sick are not working without pay, though they're supposed to be.

  4. Amy W said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 9:30 am

    I'm an American (35 years old, Missouri Ozarks), and I would consider "call in sick" the more common form. But when I got a job working fast food some 10 years ago, we referred to people "calling out" when they weren't coming in for work. (We also said "calling in" for the same thing.) We never said "call out sick," though.

  5. LHC said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 9:46 am

    I am from Massachusetts, and have always called IN sick. My wife is a native Rhode Islander and she calls OUT sick, but until the first time she said it, I had never heard that phrasing before. (I have heard other Rhode Islanders say the same.)

  6. BZ said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 9:49 am

    I'm on the east coast (New Jersey) and have always "called in sick". Never heard the "out" version until this story.
    What's odd to me is that all the media is using this phrase without comment on its correctness.

  7. jin defang said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 10:16 am

    I never, ever heard of "calling out sick" before. It's not an Americanism—maybe just another example of carelessness on the part of the person who wrote it, and an editor who didn't catch it. If there were an editor.
    Last week, the FT referred to someone as "sewing the seeds" of something or other. I know the person cited; she would never have made that mistake.

  8. Rachel Gatwood said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 10:20 am

    I'm from Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside DC, and have always heard "calling in sick," not "calling out sick."

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 10:24 am

    BZ said "What's odd to me is that all the media is using this phrase […]".
    What is odd to me is that BZ writes "all the media is […]" where I would have expected "all the media are […]".

  10. Bloix said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 10:30 am

    You must be aware that many people consider that media and data are properly treated as mass nouns that take a singular verb. Not everyone agrees and you may think it's an error, but surely it's not so rare that you find it unexpected and odd.

  11. Stephen Downes said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 10:32 am

    I'm in Canada. I've never heard the expression "calling out sick". It has always been "calling in sick".

    That said, it seems to me that there is significant drift in the American use of prepositions. First, they are being used a lot more, in cases where they would not have been used in the past ('publish up', 'tweet out', etc).

    Second, they are converging, in the sense that a small number of prepositions is beginning to predominated (specifically, 'out' and 'on'). For example, I've heard the phrase 'on accident' a lot recently, which is new to me.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 10:46 am

    Stephen Downes: Checking some common prepositions in American books, I see that "in" and "by" were indeed moving down a bit as of 2008, and "on" and "out" were moving up. I'm not ready to say a small group is beginning to predominate, though. I left "of" out because it was too much more common and compressed the others to the bottom of the graph. It's been in a significant-looking decline.

    I occasionally hear "on accident" instead of "by accident", but I hear "based off (of)" a good deal more often than "based on".

  13. Robert Coren said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 10:58 am

    I wonder if "call out sick" (which sounds strange to me, lifelong USAn) is influenced by the largely unrelated "call [someone] out", meaning to target them for some alleged misbehavior.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 11:00 am

    Bloix ("many people consider that media and data are properly treated as mass nouns") — yes, agreed, as discussed elsewhere. But in this case BZ wrote "all the media" — would you assert that "all the media" can still be properly treated as a mass nominal phrase ?

  15. Doug said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 11:21 am

    I have read that many Americans "call off work" when they won't be showing up.

  16. Jonathan said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 11:28 am

    I'm also used to the phrase "call in sick", but I wonder if we're seeing some bleed-over from the phrase "sick out" — Merriam-Webster: "an organized absence from work by workers on the pretext of sickness". Since the current incidents, though not apparently organized, do stem from a common grievance (not being paid), there is something of a "sick out" flavor to them.

    [(myl) Maybe — but a simpler story is that it's based on the common expression "[be] out sick". Here are a few of the dozens of examples in COCA:

    I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who 's out sick today.
    The other day the SOS security guard was out sick, so Ontiveros volunteered to cover for him
    Dan was out sick with a strep throat
    A very rattled secretary said he was out sick.
    … projects screech to a halt when crucial members are out sick.

    ]

  17. SlideSF said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 12:27 pm

    Native American English speaker here, and a worker for almost 50 years. It would be impossible for me to say which expression I have heard more, but I am equally familiar with both (as well as 'calling off sick"), and use them both. In fact, I did it yesterday and looking back at my text messages I see I used both expressions interchangeably.
    To me it just seems like another one of those oddities of the English language where opposite expressions mean the same thing, or the same expression can mean the opposite thing, like peeling a banana and unpeeling a banana .

    One of my favorites, which now sounds like it might be a regionalism, was quite common in my lake-studded town in the summertime. I'd be on the beach with a friend or two and one would say "Let's go in", meaning "Let's go into the water". After a time, when we got tired, someone would inevitably suggest, "Let's go in now", meaning, of course, "Let's leave the water and go back on shore."

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 12:33 pm

    Well, someone (ideally a Briton) ought to make reference to the hallowed sport of cricket :
    [blockquote]
    You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side thats been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.

    When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay all out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out.

    When both sides have been in and all the men have out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!
    [/blockquote]

    With acnowledgements to http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/content/page/429550.html from which this is a direct transcription.

  19. Ted McClure said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 12:33 pm

    In this particular case I suspect the various publications adapted their texts from the same ultimate source, a source which used "call out sick" for any of the reasons discussed above. Such journalistic sloth is a simpler explanation.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 12:57 pm

    SlideSF — I am intrigued to know whether you are a (Native American) (English speaker), or a native (American English speaker). If the phrase had occurred anywhere other than sentence-initially, the case of the leading "N"/"n" would have made the answer immediately apparent, but in sentence-initial position the "N" is required and therefore doesn't help with disambiguation …

  21. Dagwood said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 1:04 pm

    I've always heard "call in sick" until the past few years when I noticed a number of African Americans I know in nyc saying "call out sick".

  22. Lee C. said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 1:32 pm

    My 21-year-old daughter and her retail co-workers (few if any of them African American or from NYC) use "call out" as a standalone phrase, as in "If I don't feel any better tomorrow, I'm going to call out" or "I had to do extra work today as two of my co-workers called out". This is a usage that was completely foreign to me when I first heard it a year or two ago.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 1:37 pm

    P.S. (and back on topic) — We Britons fill in, Americans fill them out. And regarding Stephen Downes' "[prepositions] are being used a lot more, in cases where they would not have been used in the past ('publish up', 'tweet out', etc)", I do so wish this were true for "appeal [against]". For most of my life, we Britons have appealed against a decision, whilst Americans have simply "appealed" one. Now, much to my horror, I find that the British press too are now writing of "appealing " rather than "appealing against <whatever>.

  24. Sam C said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 1:52 pm

    AmE speaker, MidAtlantic, ~30 years and I definitely "call out sick" when I can't make it into work. When someone's not at work, "she called out sick" sounds fine to me. I spent quite a few years in retail, though, which could also be the source for me.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 2:28 pm

    Just on the count-v.-mass sideshow, I am puzzled by Philip Taylor's proposed test for count-ness. "All the NOUN" with a singular verb seems perfectly ordinary for mass nouns. Admittedly, the first couple examples I can think of are things like "all the furniture needs to be moved out of this room by tomorrow" which are more passive in construction, but I think that may be because "media" is a weird mass noun in terms of being functionally animate (and the specifically-human kind of animate) and can thus be the subject of all sorts of predicates that more typical mass nouns like "furniture" or "sand" or for that matter "data" would not be. "All the gravel is using this phrase" is weird-sounding semantically, not syntactically.

  26. Jim said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 2:33 pm

    What happened to "call off sick"? That's the only one I've ever heard with any regularity.

  27. Jim said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 3:14 pm

    I'm from the West Coast, but with some influence from Missouri (miz-ur-uh) and near Louisville, and it has always been "calling out sick".

    To me, this is the difference between "come in" and "stay out" — you call in, yes, but to say that you are staying out of the office.

    The again, maybe it just means that today's social justice "call out culture" has gone too far. (heh)

  28. Michael Vnuk said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 4:05 pm

    An Australian here, 61 years old. I've only ever heard 'call in sick'.

    Further to Stephen Downes' comment, I have also noticed (although not systematically researched) similar changes in use of prepositions, ie prepositions where none used before and a narrower range of prepositions being used. However, I have noticed other cases where prepositions have been omitted. For instance, I thought that the expression concerning death was 'pass away'. More recently, I have noticed the simpler 'pass on' (Downes' narrowing), but lately I have noticed the prepositionless 'pass'. I had only ever seen 'cave in', meaning 'yield under pressure', but lately it is just 'cave'. I had only ever seen 'deal with (something)', but I have spotted a few cases where people have written 'we can't deal', with nothing after 'deal'. I think that most of these prepositionless sightings have been in American writing.

  29. David Morris said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 4:39 pm

    Two thoughts: 1) Can these diverse news reports be traced to one source eg a spokesperson for the TSA at Sea-Tac? 2) Could the parsing be '(call out) "sick"'? (That said, 'call in sick' is totally standard for me (AusEng). AusEng speakers also informally talk about 'taking' or 'chucking a sickie', but that's probably too informal for a news headline.)

  30. Bob Ladd said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 5:29 pm

    @ SlideSF: I also use go in to refer to both moving from beach to water and moving from water to beach. It never fails to bother my wife (native speaker of Italian), for whom the difference between entrare and uscire couldn't be clearer. Since most of our beach time happens in Italy (and it would never occur to me to use entrare for going from water to beach), I actually began to wonder if there was something weird about my English usage, so I'm glad to have your indirect confirmation that no, this really is what (some) people actually say.

  31. JPL said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 8:36 pm

    "Call in sick" and "X is out sick" are both weird. Can I "call in hung over" or be "out hung over" too? ("X came in sick, but the boss told him to go home", "X is out with the flu/an injury")

  32. Theophylact said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 8:48 pm

    US native here. Only ever used "call in sick". You call in to report that you'll be out sick.

  33. Martha said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 10:49 pm

    I'm another person who uses "call in sick" and "call out," but not "call out sick." I've never heard "call out sick," that I recall. (Age 35, PNW.)

    Also, I find nothing remarkable about "on accident."

  34. Viseguy said,

    January 8, 2019 @ 11:13 pm

    I only ever email (in) when I'm sick. Ergo, I call (in) [sic].

  35. Trogluddite said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 8:44 am

    I've only ever known "calling in sick" to warn one's employer that one will be "off sick". Philip Taylor's delightful cricket quote made me wonder whether "out sick" has some kind of sporting origin; to my British ears, being "out" of a game seems idiomatic, but the vernacular for a worker who is absent due to sickness or leave is always "off [work]". A person might be "out of" their usual workplace, but that would more often mean that they are working elsewhere (or are being evasive!) rather than absent from work; or they might be "out of work" if they have no job at all. Someone who is "off sick" might simultaneously be "on the sick" (receiving financial assistance due to illness or disability); but "out sick" is definitely a new one to me.

  36. Ben Olson said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 8:47 am

    I'm 26 years old and from the Atlanta area and "calling out sick" sounds very normal to me.

  37. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 11:31 am

    Jim: What happened to "call off sick"? That's the only one I've ever heard with any regularity.

    "Call off sick" is pretty rare in the U.S., as you can see here.

    JPL: "Call in sick" and "X is out sick" are both weird. Can I "call in hung over" or be "out hung over" too? ("X came in sick, but the boss told him to go home", "X is out with the flu/an injury")

    I agree that "call in sick" and "out sick" are a little weird, although "call in hung over" isn't really a fair comparison because you don't hear it much; people who miss work because of hangovers probably claim to be sick. "Out sick" might be like the cricket terms "he was out caught" (like baseball "he flied out"), "he was out bowled" (a little like "he struck out"), etc.

    Martha: "By accident" was far more popular in American books as of 2008, and "on accident" is far more popular at Google Trends. I really wonder about that last. COCA, which is 5/6 written American English, has 2 instances of "on accident" from 2017 and 58 of "by accident".

  38. bratschegirl said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 12:38 pm

    I have only ever used, and until very recently only heard others use or refer to, the term "call in sick," to describe the process by which one notifies one's employer that one is going to "be out sick." Both my husband and I took notice of this particular story, since it's a locution that neither of us uses and which we're not accustomed to hearing anyone else use.

  39. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 1:18 pm

    I am an American, and I always have heard, and said, "call in sick". I had no problem understanding the "out" variant but it is not familiar at all.

  40. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 1:21 pm

    (I should specify for demographic purposes that I am a 49 year old male from Atlanta, GA)

  41. Casey said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 3:48 pm

    I completely disagree with this analysis, because "calling out sick" is a little strange to me, but "call out" used to mean "call your office to tell them you won't be in to work" is completely normal to me. I'm a 30-year-old man in Massachusetts.

  42. peterv said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 5:13 pm

    @Michael Vnuk:

    Not everyone believes that at death we pass away. Some people, perhaps a majority of the world, believe we pass on. Referring to this event as passing (ie, without any preposition) is a polite way to refer to the event without offending either group of people.

  43. amy said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 10:06 pm

    In computer science, there is the concept of combining multiple pieces of a program together, known as "linking". The phrases "linking with" and "linking against" seem to both be used to refer to the same thing, and I've always found the latter to be a puzzling expression.

  44. Idran said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 11:42 pm

    @peterv: I'm afraid I don't follow what you mean. To me, both "pass away" and "pass on" can be equally parsed as referring to going into nothingness or leaving to an afterlife. Neither implies either one of the two more than the other to me, they both equally connote either possibility.

  45. Philip Taylor said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 4:44 am

    Pass (on/away). Unlike Idran, I do perceive "pass on" as implying the existence of an afterlife; "pass away" is, for me, neutral, and is simply a euphemism for "die".

    As to Amy's point, I too am familiar with both "link against" and "link with", and it reminded me of something of which I thought when commenting on another LL post earlier today. Why is it, I wonder, that one can use "not" in a sentence without in changing its meaning ? The example I had in mind was "I do wonder whether it might [not] be starting to verge on the ridiculous" — I can write both, but tend to use the "not" form more frequently, somehow feeling that it accords better with the British tendency to prefer litotes to more direct forms of expression.

  46. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 11:59 am

    I grew up in rural south western Ohio, north east of Cincinnati. I also lived in Muncie, IN, for 3 years, then in Cleveland (OH) for 9 years, then moved to California (SF Bay Area), where I lived for 8 years before moving to SoCal (first northern San Diego County, now in the High Desert north east of LA). I mention all of that only to give context.

    I personally grew up hearing and using "call off sick" and still use this phrasing today. I have heard both of the other variants ("call in sick" and "call out sick") here in Cali, but that's not surprising since it seems as if most of the people who live here are from elsewhere.

  47. sp said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 7:13 pm

    29, F, southern california born and bred, i would preferentially use "call out sick" over "call in sick" or "call off sick," although all feel normal.

    I also say "calling out" or "calling off" for the same meaning, e.g. "I'm calling out today. / I called off work today. / He called out of work three times last week!!" I would not use "calling in" this way, as that has the feeling of a radio talk show.

  48. Alexandra England said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 8:14 am

    Philip Taylor: Pass (on/away). Unlike Idran, I do perceive "pass on" as implying the existence of an afterlife; "pass away" is, for me, neutral, and is simply a euphemism for "die".

    As to Amy's point, I too am familiar with both "link against" and "link with", and it reminded me of something of which I thought when commenting on another LL post earlier today. Why is it, I wonder, that one can use "not" in a sentence without in changing its meaning ? The example I had in mind was "I do wonder whether it might [not] be starting to verge on the ridiculous" — I can write both, but tend to use the "not" form more frequently, somehow feeling that it accords better with the British tendency to prefer litotes to more direct forms of expression.

  49. Alexandra England said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 8:22 am

    Philip Taylor:

    "Why is it, I wonder, that one can use "not" in a sentence without in changing its meaning ? The example I had in mind was "I do wonder whether it might [not] be starting to verge on the ridiculous" — I can write both, but tend to use the "not" form more frequently, somehow feeling that it accords better with the British tendency to prefer litotes to more direct forms of expression."

    I would suggest that it is because your 'not' is inside a projected clause, that clause being attached to a speech act which itself positions the likelihood of 'it' verging, or not verging, on the ridiculous, as both possible. More simply, by starting with 'I wonder whether,' you've explicitly allowed for either possibility to be the case, so by adding 'not' you're not changing the content.

  50. Alexandra England said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 8:23 am

    Apologies for the first comment, it's the sort of nonsense I end up posting when I use a forum with no edit function and try to type faster than I really can.

  51. Philip Taylor said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 9:49 am

    Alexandra — Thank you, that is a very helpful explanation which I shall bear in mind whenever I start to vacillate about whether (or not !) to include a "not" …

  52. Rose Eneri said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 10:54 am

    I worked for the US Federal government and we always used "call in sick." My brother worked in a Teamsters Union job and always used "call out sick." I suppose either phrase would be parsed as "I called in to the office to say that I would be out because I am sick." Either phrase works as a truncation of the whole sentence and the choice operates rather as a shibboleth.

    Given the uniformity of the headlines, it appears that either they all derive from the same source or that the journalism industry itself uses "call out sick."

  53. JPL said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 6:32 pm

    @Rose Eneri:

    Nice!

    The general hypothesis then would be that the variation in this expression correlates with not so much regional dialect, but more with social context of use (unionized, white collar, particular "industries", etc.), and their customary speech patterns.

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