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You have to get Chang to call off some of this homework.

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Sorry, couldn't resist, as particularly appropriate on this site: ♫ You say either, I say either – Benjol May 16 '11 at 9:53
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Their meanings overlap a great deal, but there are some differences in where you use it.

To call off something naturally comes from cancelling something by shouting out an order, but has spread to mean almost any form of cancelling.

In some expressions it could be confusing to use call off instead of cancel, for example when cancelling a subscription.

Similarly some uses of call off can't just be replaced by cancel, for example in the expression call off the dogs. To use cancel instead, you would have to specify that it's the action of the dogs that should be cancelled, not the dogs themselves.

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I think I need to disagree. When planning a party expecting a clown, then deciding you don't want him, people say cancel the clown. Therefore, I believe cancel the dogs could be used the same way. – RiMMER May 16 '11 at 10:27
@RiMMER: Then it would have a different meaning. – Guffa May 16 '11 at 11:41

They have some special usages:

  • To "call off" : to decide that a planned event, especially a sports event, will not happen:

Tomorrow's match has been called off because of the icy weather.

  • To "cancel" : to stop an order for goods or services that you no longer want:

to cancel a magazine subscription

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