“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 managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years.