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Merriam-Webster gives:

call - intransitive verb: to make a brief visit

called on a friend

Whereas Macmillan has:

call on - transitive verb [call on someone] to visit someone, usually for a short time

We could call on my parents if we have time.

Which one is right? And I would like to make sure, on - is it a preposition here?

  • "Call on" is not a verb, but a verb + a preposition. Irrespective of the semantics, the notion of a multi-word verb is plain nonsense. – BillJ Nov 2 '19 at 12:11
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The two dictionaries you cite are giving different grammatical interpretations of the string 'call/ed on someone'.

It's probably clearer to deal with the Macmillan view first. It treats 'call on' in this sense as a multi-word verb (MWV); it uses the term 'phrasal verb'. This treatment sees the 'verb + transitivising particle' as a coherent unit, a single lexeme. Here, 'on' is no longer seen as a preposition; as it is obviously an orthographic word, the term '[transitivising] particle', for want of anything better, is used. 'Call' is the simplex verb, and 'call on' the transitive MWV.

'Call on' is seen as a single-lexeme equivalent of the transitive verb 'visit'.

Jill [called on] John. ..................... S + MWVtrans + DO

.......................

On the other hand, Merriam-Webster sees this usage as verb + preposition[al phrase] (and indeed this example does fall in the grey area).

'Call' is used quite commonly in certain cases as an intransitive verb, usually 'padded' by material adding information about time and/or reason:

?Jackie called.

Jackie called to pay her respects.

Joe called on Tuesday; it was great to see him again.

Jeff called on the offchance that you'd be in and agree to see him

There is an ambiguity, in that 'called' can also mean 'rang'.

'Call round' and 'call in' are often used rather than 'call' in this sense.

According to the analysis M-W is using, with 'Jill called on John', the cohesion between 'call' and 'on' is not regarded as sufficient to call this a single lexeme (unit of meaning), so 'Jill called on John' is analysed similarly to 'Jill arrived at Paris'.

Jill called [on John]. ................. S + V + PP

So 'on' is classed as a traditional preposition.

Which is the correct interpretation? The jury is out, but personally, if there's a single-word equivalent (here: visit), I usually go with the MWV interpretation.

  • Thanks for the detailed answer! Now it became clear! – Martin Nov 2 '19 at 11:39
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The sense of intransitive call meaning "visit, go and see" is almost obsolete now, but you'll find it in books at least up to the mid 20C. (The separate meaning telephone is still alive, of course).

But the transitive phrasal verb call on is still in use (though I think it is a bit old fashioned in this sense).

As long as that particular intransitive call was alive, it was reasonable to treat call on as an instance of that call plus an indirect object introduced by the preposition on. Now that call on is isolated, it makes sense to treat it as a phrasal verb. But neither analysis is wrong.

  • This answer also helped me understand the whole picture. Thank you! – Martin Nov 2 '19 at 11:40
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[1] I'll call Ed next week. [transitive]

[2] I'll call on Ed next week. [intransitive]

A verb is only transitive if it has a direct object in the clause that contains it.

"Call" is one of a large number of verbs that can be transitive, as in [1], and intransitive, as in [2].

Note that complements of prepositions are not direct or indirect objects.

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CALL ON generally means VISIT

The minister visited the place. The place was visited by the minister.

If we use 'CALL ON' in this sense, it looks like transitive.

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