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As an example, in a legal setting:

Do you recall what color the car was?
Do you remember what color the car was?

Which would be more appropriate?

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  • To me recall implies at least a slight effort to bring the memory back to the conscious mind, and remember does not. You may remember something involuntarily, but you do not recall something involuntarily. Feb 26 at 19:57

4 Answers 4

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Semantically, they are equivalent in the example you've given.

Either is appropriate. But, for whatever reason, recall seems to be preferred by the legal set.

The difference in the actual meanings of the words: Recall means to call back into one's consciousness. I don't recall the actual date of our conversation.

Remember means to retain in memory. It usually implies a personal experience with the subject matter. Did you remember to lock the door?. Source

This example is actually where the two differ. Recall cannot be used in the sense of not forget to do. Source

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  • What is the difference in the phrase "the author's feeling about what he recalls and cannot remember about his youth"? Dec 7, 2015 at 21:38
  • 2
    @Doeser There is, in fact, very little difference there. The likelihood in this case is that the author would use both words to avoid redundancy rather than a shift in meaning.
    – David M
    Dec 8, 2015 at 21:53
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The usage of remember and recall in this circumstance is not wrong, but remember and recall have slightly different meanings:

  • Recall: It is used when you trigger something (in this case mind) to get some information from your your mind.

    Example: Today I lost my cell phone when we hung together, would you please recall where I left my phone?

    (Here your friend wants you to go back into the past and look where they may have left their phone.)

  • Remember: It is used when something is ready to be used in your mind.

    Example: I remember her name.

    (Here if you say that "I recall her name," it means you go back into the past and try to collect her name from your stored memory.)

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  • 2
    By the same token, I think if something comes into your memory unprompted, "remember" would be more usual.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 26 at 19:40
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You can substitute "not to forget" with "remember", but not with "recall". Example: you're going to the store and your wife tells you to "please, don't forget to pick up diapers" (Please, remember to pick up diapers."). You don't use "recall" for this.

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  • 2
    Hello, Tess. David M said this a long time ago: 'Recall cannot be used in the sense of not forget to do'. Jul 24, 2015 at 10:02
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Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1942) provides a useful analysis of remember versus recall—in part by including a third term, recollect, to the discussion:

Remember, recollect, recall, remind, reminisce, bethink, mind are not as a group synonymous terms, although they all carry as their basic meaning to put one (often oneself) in mind of something. Remember, except in a few idiomatic expressions such as "remember me to him" (i.e., put me and my regard for him in his mind) and in older literary use (as, "Remembering them the truth of what what they themselves know"—Milton), now implies a putting oneself in mind of something. The term in current use carries so strong an implication of keeping in one's memory that it often implies no conscious effort or willing; [examples omitted]. Recollect ... etymologically presupposes a scattering and implies a gathering of that which has been scattered: it is distinguished from remember in presupposing a letting go from rather than a retaining in one's memory and therefore implies a bringing back, sometimes with effort, to one's own mind that which has not been in it for an appreciable period of time; [examples omitted]. When used reflexively, recollect usually implies a remembrance of something one has forgotten in one's eagerness, excitement, anger, or the like, such as one's manners or one's real intention [examples omitted]. Recall often comes close to recollect in implying volition or an effort to bring back what has been forgotten, but it differs from recollect in suggesting a summons rather than a process of thought; often, also, it connotes a telling of that which is brought back; [examples omitted].

To somewhat similar effect is discussion in S.I. Hayakawa, Modern Guide to Synonyms (1968), which groups remember and recall with memorize, recollect, remind, reminisce, retain, and review:

These words refer to the act of summoning up the past, to its spontaneous cropping up in the mind, or to the fixing of present data in the memory for future reference. Remember can refer generally to any mental glance at the past, voluntary or involuntary: [examples omitted]. But often the word specifically suggests the staying power of a vivid past event or circumstance: [example omitted]. Recall is more formal than remember and more often indicated a voluntary summoning up of the past, whether silently for oneself or verbally for others. [Examples omitted.] But unlike remember, the word can refer to something in the present that resembles and therefore calls up something in the past; a view that recalled to him the fishing village he had stayed in during the war. ...

When used interchangeably with recall, recollect can have a regional flavor: I don't rightly recollect when I saw her last. But the word can apply without this flavor to the act of casting one's mind back over past events in a leisurely and ruminative manner, whether silently to oneself or verbally to others. The word can suggest the active process of piecing together dimly remembered and half-forgotten details: [examples omitted].

As these discussions indicate, remember tends to be the most widely applicable term of the three to instances of tapping into one's memory; recall commonly implies an active effort to summon up a remembrance of one or more past events; and recollect more strongly suggests gathering scattered fragments of memory into a coherent whole. But there are a great many instances in which any of these three synonyms could be used interchangeably without causing the least misunderstanding of the intended meaning.

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