Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Ringing the Changes on "Ring" Words

"You must be a ringer," the journalism instructor told the student, who insisted that, though he had many years of experience in other jobs, he had never been a journalist. "I admit I had to look that term up," the student said later." I wasn't sure if it calling me a ringer was a compliment or an insult."

Compliment, but with a whiff of "you cheater!"

A "ringer" in this sense is a substitute, often someone or something substituted in a competition, usually to gain an advantage. A semi-professional bowler entered into an amateur tournament, for example, might be called a "ringer." The word is considered slang, and is mostly used in the United States. It is traceable to the 1780s, when a slang verb, "to ring," meant "to substitute one thing for another fraudulently and take the more valuable item," the Oxford English Dictionary says. Most dictionaries say "ringer" can be merely a substitute, but it's guilty by association with its original definition, "a horse, player, etc. fraudulently entered, or substituted for another, in a competition."

A ringer is, of course, also someone who "rings" a bell; "to ring" also means "to encircle." And that's where their past tenses diverge: "The Olympic athletes ringed the arena to listen to the chimes of Big Ben," but "Big Ben rang to welcome the Olympic athletes to the arena."

"Rang" is the simple past tense of the bell action, but "rung" is the participial form, meaning the part that forms other tenses of that verb. "Big Ben had rung for the Queen's Jubilee just a few weeks earlier" is correct, though "had rang" is seen frequently enough to earn a mention in Garner's Modern American Usage. ("Had rang" is wrong, it says.) Using "rung" as the simple past tense is also wrong; that usage ("I rung the bells") shows up most often in dialect.

If you spend time worrying about which version of "ring" to use, you are "wringing" your hands, not "ringing" them, unless they're made of brass and produce a lovely tone. "To wring" means to twist, squeeze, or press something; clothes used to be "put through the wringer" to get rid of most of the water before they were hung on the clothesline. Maybe because no one sees "wringers" any more, "hand-ringing" has become more common, though still wrong.

The past tense forms of "wring" may add to the confusion, since they are all "wrung"; there is no "wringed" or "wrang," though both appear occasionally.

It's easy to wrangle these, though. You just need to know what it is being ringed, rung, or wrung.


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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 26th 2012, 8:05 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
I frequently use this expression "it rings my bell" to indicate an understanding, a memory, a useful idea, a goofy kine of 'thank you'.
Wednesday September 26th 2012, 8:08 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
Rereading a Visual Thesaurus comment and discovering a typographical error 'rings' another kind of bell for me.
Wednesday September 26th 2012, 12:38 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
Herb, I've also heard people who find someone charming or attractive say, "she rings my bell!" ... or perhaps as a plural, "He rings my bells." Either way, it's nice to ring people's bells, I would imagine (unless you're an escaped convict and your face rings a bell with the neighborhood cop).

A ringer in the way Merrill began this conversation reminds me of the saying, 'dead ringer,' for someone who looks identical to another (as with twins). In an early 60s Bette Davis movie called "Dead Ringer," the star portrayed identical twins (one rich and kind; the other poor and evil). You might imagine the plot. In the end, only the faithful dog could not be fooled!
Wednesday September 26th 2012, 2:36 PM
Comment by: Kathy L. (Alta Loma, CA)
This is helpful and I learned something today. In the future, I am aware if I should ringed, rung, or wrung. Yikes!
Tuesday October 2nd 2012, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Fatima (Freiburg i. Br. Germany)
'The new advertising campaign was a bell ringer´´
´scored a bull´s eye´
´hit the mark´
´The president´s speech was a home run´

just accessed this data on the VT. Thought I´d share. Fatim!

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