'On the phone' or 'over the phone'?

Published: 12th October 2013 04:04 PM  |   Last Updated: 12th October 2013 04:04 PM   |  A+A-

What is the difference between these two phrases: on the phone and over the phone? Do native speakers of English prefer on… to over…? Reacting to the use of over the phone in the sentence, Never have I contacted him over the phone, in my last column, T H Lawrence, a regular reader and critic of this column, sent in this comment:  “…about the usage ‘over the phone’. Of course, most of us (Indians) tend to say it. But native users confirm it as ‘on the phone’. So does grammar. Could you please examine it?”

I had the experience of working with native speakers of English for five years and I have been in touch with American, Australian and British friends for over 15 years. I have heard them use the phrases on the phone and over the phone, and I have also come across these phrases in many news reports and articles written by native speakers of English. Very recently, when I sent in the query to Timothy Biles, my English friend for over 25 years, he promptly sent this reply:

Both phrases are used in a casual manner and are quite acceptable. However, to be strictly correct, I think being ‘on’ the phone refers to the present tense, now: ‘I am on the phone’ while ‘over’ refers to a past (or future) conversation: ‘I will discuss it over the phone’ or ‘I have discussed it over the phone’. But this is pedantic; either is ok, in fact I’ve never thought about it before!

This explanation may be convincing. When someone (Peter) is using  the phone (speaking to someone) we can say: Peter is on the phone.  When the emphasis is on the mode of communication we can say: Peter discussed the matter over the phone. 

Yes, both phrases are quite acceptable in British as well as American English, as many example sentences are available on the Internet. I came across the following message written by a native speaker of English:

“Quitting a job over the phone isn’t the most polite way to quit. However, if you are unable to resign in person, quitting over the phone or via email is an alternative. Do keep in mind, if you quit and don’t plan on working any more days, it may cost you a reference. Here’s how to quit a job over the phone.” (Source: http://jobsearch.about.com/od/resignation/qt/quit-job-over-phone.htm)

Here are a few more examples from Internet sources:

LawAccess NSW is a free government telephone service that provides legal assistance for people…. Legal Aid NSW has a number of specialist services that provide help over the phone. http://www.legalaid.nsw.gov.au/get-legal-help/legal-helpline (Australia)

This example is from RTE News (Ireland): 

US President Barack Obama has said that he has spoken over the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (http://www.rte.ie/news/2013/0927/476760-iran-nuclear-talks/)

Here are some examples of  the use of the phrase on the phone:

• Tomorrow I have a job interview on the phone. 

• We are organising a workshop on ‘How to speak professionally on the phone’

• Is she still on the phone?

• Read this interesting article on ‘reasons to avoid talking on the phone.

My free time at home is usually spent emailing, listening to music, reading and talking on the phone. I wish I was on the phone less, but I have been fortunate to stay in touch with so many incredible friends. — Steve Nash

Dr Albert P’ Rayan is an ELT resource person and associate   professor at KCG College of Technology, Chennai

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