This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.
Search BBC
BBC World Service
BBC BBC News BBC Sport BBC Weather BBC World Service Worldservice languages
spacer gif
You are in: Home > Grammar, Vocabulary & Pronunciation > Ask about English
Learning English
spacer gif
switch or change?

Izmaelov from Denmark writes:

Hi Roger! Are you familiar with the words switch and change? I guess you are, but me and my friends have had some pretty hot discussions about the meaning and different usage of these two words…

Roger Woodham replies:

change - verb and noun

If there is a change or if something changes, it becomes different in some way or it is replaced by something of a similar kind - and it in this respect that the meaning is most similar to switch. However, in all of these examples that follow, only change is possible or normal. We cannot easily replace change with switch.

  • Going out to work every day is quite a change from university life, I must admit.
  • I can't go straight from work. I shall have to come home and change first. (i.e. change clothes)
  • There's no direct (train) service to Oxford after 10 p.m. You'll have to change at Reading.
  • I was away for the whole weekend so I packed two changes of underwear.
  • I hardly recognised her - she had changed so much. (i.e. changed in appearance)
  • I'm the father of three children but I still don't know how to change a nappy.
  • Could you change the light bulb for me please?
    ~ OK. But I'll change the oil in your car first.
  • Can anybody change this £50 note? (i.e. give me the same amount of money in smaller coins or notes)
  • I had no loose change (i.e. smaller coins) so I had to pay with a £10 note.
  • You must wait till the (traffic) lights change (i.e. from red to green) before you cross the road.

We also talk about:

changing the subject - starting to talk about something else to avoid embarrassment
changing your mind - deciding to do something else, usually the opposite
changing your tune - a more informal expression for saying or doing something else
having a change of heart - reversing your opinions or attitudes
a sea change - a complete change in someone's attitudes or behaviour
things which change hands - things which pass from one owner to another

  • Did you know that Brenda's sex-change operation hasn't been successful?
    ~ Do you mind if we change the subject?
    ~ Of course we can, but you should know that she's going ahead with her plan to change her name from Brenda to Brendan.
  • I can't afford to take everybody to this football match. ~ You've changed your tune, haven't you? You were going to get a season ticket three weeks ago!
  • He suddenly became responsible for his actions. This sea change in his behaviour surprised his parents.

switch - verb and noun

A switch is a device for making and breaking the connection in an electrical circuit in e.g. a light, radio, TV or heater. We
these things on and off. We also turn them on and off. We can turn them down or up, but we cannot switch them
down or up:

  • You call that music? It's a terrible row! Either turn it down or switch it off.

If you switch to something different, you change suddenly to a different task or activity from what you were doing before. We can use switch or change in all these examples, but switch is more dramatic:

  • Would you mind switching / changing places with me so that I can sit next to my child?
  • I had to switch / change planes in New York. There was no direct service to Miami.
  • I was going nowhere so I decided to switch / change jobs.
  • I think you would create more space if you switched / changed / moved the furniture around.

Because of its dramatic quality, switch is frequently used in newspaper headlines. These three examples all appeared in the Independent daily newspaper on 28 or 29 January. See if you can work out the meaning. The answers are below:

  • Abel Xavair set to switch to Liverpool.
  • Switch to euro uncovers Ireland's excessive prices.
  • Gang switched signals to help refugees.

Abel Xaviar, the Portuguese defender, is ready (= set) to move from Everton across town to Liverpool football club.
The changeover or switch from the Irish punt to the euro has revealed the high cost of certain goods.
A criminal group of men (= gang) changed or switched train signals from green to red so that trains would stop to allow refugees to climb on board.


Finally, note these more informal and idiomatic usages of switch and turn:

to switch off - to stop paying attention
to be switched on - to be well-informed or up-to-date about contemporary issues
to turn someone on - to excite them, to stimulate their interest, especially when you find somebody attractive
Whatever turns you on! - a stock/fixed response to a description of unusual practice

  • His description of his working day was so boring that I just switched off.
  • He is really switched on when it comes to fashion. He knows all about the Italian fashion houses.
  • I thought you liked me, but I don't really turn you on, do I?
  • Oh no - it's a film about philosophy. What a turn-off!
  • And then I became really interested in the triassic, jurassic and cretaceous periods.
    ~ Whatever turns you on!

If you would like more practice more please visit our Message Board in the You, Me and Us part of our website.

more questions

BBC copyright
Learning English | News English | Business English | Watch and Listen
Grammar and Vocabulary | Communicate | Quizzes | For teachers
Downloads | FAQ | Contact us