‘Call in Sick’ or ‘Call out Sick’?

“Calling out sick” seems to be most common in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. But some people even say they "call off sick."

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #861

MAP KEY: red=call in sick. yellow=call out sick. green=call off sick. blue=mixed.

Caller Question: "Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Ellen from Newark, California. I have a question. I am 60 years old, and I always use the phrase or heard the phrase 'calling in sick' if I couldn't make it to work. Or if someone couldn't make it to work, they would call in to say they were sick and couldn't come to work. But in recent years, like within the last 10 years, I have heard family members say they're 'calling out' and that sounded very strange to me. But even today in the 'Washington Post,' there was an article and sure enough it used the phrase 'calling out sick' because of COVID. Employees are calling out. So I just was curious about the phrases 'calling in sick' and 'calling out sick.' Thanks a lot."

Thanks for the question, Ellen.

I've always said "call in sick." The way I think of it is that you call in to the office to say you'll be out sick. And if I call in and you take the call, you would tell everyone else that Mignon is going to be off sick or out sick today.

'Call in Sick' is the most common phrase

Looking at how often these phrases appear in books Google has scanned, I found that "call in sick" is dramatically more common than "call out sick" in both American and British English. In fact, "call out sick" doesn't seem to appear in books categorized as British English at all. And it's the same when you look at variations like "called" and "calling." 

A Google Ngram chart that shows "call in sick" is far more common than "call out sick" and "call off sick" in published books.

I found the same thing when I looked at the Corpus of Contemporary American English: "call in sick" shows up about 100 times more often than "call out sick" (307 versus 3). That database does have more casual sources than the Google Books database, like transcripts from movies and TV shows, but I wondered if maybe in even more casual use, like on Twitter, I'd find "call out sick" more often. And I did, but it was still 10-to-1 in favor of "call in sick" (61 versus 6 in a 4-hour period in the middle of the day, Pacific time). 

No matter where I looked, "call in sick" won big time in the big picture. 

However, back in 2009, I posed this question to my followers on social media and made a map of their responses because they did report something of a regional difference.

Variations are regional and possibly based on corporate culture

I noticed a few interesting things while I was going through the responses to make the map:

  • “Calling out sick” seems to be most common in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, although it is heard a bit in other places.
  • A very small number of people (about six respondents) said they say they “call off sick,” which I had never heard before. It was too few people to say anything definitive, but they seem to be scattered across a region from Illinois to Pennsylvania that linguists sometimes call the Inland Northern region. "Call off sick" does show up in American English books in Google Books, but at a rate dramatically lower than even "call out sick."
  • Among the initial responses, a few people said they had worked at different companies in the same city, and at one company everyone said they call in sick, and at another company everyone said they call out sick, which led me to suspect that corporate culture or traditions play a role along with regional differences. And follow-up posts on the original map convinced me even more that corporate culture plays a role. I’m not sure whether regionalisms are behind the corporate culture aspect though. For example, it could be that the human resources departments for the companies that foster a culture where people say they "call out sick" are located in the regions where that wording is more common or that the departments are led by people who moved from a place where that wording is more common. I just can’t tell.

These different sayings aren't right or wrong. It's like saying you stand on line instead of saying you stand in line. They're idioms, and they may sound weird to those of us who don’t live near where one of the other is said, but they aren’t wrong. Some idioms are just different in some parts of the country.  

Did people call in sick before 1960?

Another thing that stood out to me when I was looking at the graphs from Google Books is that these phrases rarely appeared in any form before 1960. Did people not call in sick to work before then? Did they use other words for it? I don't know! I posted the question online and although I don't have a definitive answer, people had some interesting ideas and stories.

First, a lot of people wondered whether it had to do with the availability of telephones, but I compared the adoption curve for the telephone to the frequency of people talking about calling in sick to work, and they didn't match.

Another person said that people used to talk more about being absent from work. It looks like that phrase started showing up in government documents around 1930, which makes it hard to tease out its real usage (because those documents just swamp out everything else at Google Books), but when I limit the search to fiction, the phrase "absent from work" was never significant.

What seems more likely to me is that before 1960, people either didn't have sick days because labor laws were weaker, and therefore didn't take time off as much because they couldn't afford it, or that people didn't actually need to call in sick for the kinds of jobs they were more likely to have had back then. For example, Amy J. Schneider, an editor friend, says her family says it was a common experience until the mid-to-late 1970s that you were simply allowed a set number of days you could be absent. For example, at one job, the boss simply went around at the start of the shift, determined who was or wasn't there, and distributed tasks accordingly.

I'm really curious about this rise in calling in sick since 1960 or, put another way, the lack of calling in sick before 1960, so if you know, please tag me on social media and share your story. This could also be an interesting thing to ask your parents or grandparents about the next time you talk to them.

A zoomed in map showing that people mostly say call out sick on the East Coast.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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