You often hear people, while trying to tell another person the reason they didn't greet them, or why the other person didn't realize they were actually greeted, say expressions like;
• I was on call when you passed by so I couldn't say hi.
• I greeted you, maybe you didn't hear because you were on call.
These are very common, but the mere fact that they are common expressions doesn't make them right. While the phrase 'on call' is correct, Its usage in these contexts is very wrong and may be embarrassing if carelessly used in a setting where its real meaning is understood and significant.
'On call' used to be a reserved phrase for medical doctors, police officers and other similar fields that deal with emergency. But it has now been extended to other walks of life. It is basically used for a person who is not on duty, but is in agreement with his office to resume to work if the need arises. For example, a doctor who just finished his normal shift, but doesn't have anything engaging to do after his working hours, may get enlisted for on call services.
Such a doctor, or any personnel that may be, has liberty to leave the vicinity of his workplace until he receives a call demanding his presence back in the office. On call personnel is subject to office rules, like alcohol consumption. His cell phone must always be on because he must not miss a call from office.
You could have heard a medical doctor or police reject a drink by simply saying, "Sorry, I'm on call!" Or you noticed an absentminded friend who kept checking his phone while at the bar, and you asked him, "Guy, Any problem?" and he simply said, "Never mind, it's because I'm on call."
Essentially, what they were saying was that, they were under certain obligations from their office, and must not engage in things that can hinder them from discharging their duties properly if called.
And imagine you carelessly use the phrase while discussing in the midst of these professionals, you might be taken for an ignorant. Because, as a matter of fact, 'On call' is not applicable anywhere else in English Language other than in the above examples.
So, how does one now express himself in order to tell someone that he was on the phone the other time, and that was why he didn't say hi?
If that's all the question you have to ask, you already got the answer. Simply say,
• I was on the phone when you passed by so I couldn't say hi.
• I greeted you, maybe you didn't hear because you were on the phone.
• I was on the phone with my girlfriend until late last night. What about that?
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