Friday, September 9, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Phone Numbers - A Call to Action

by Peggy Robin

This is such frivolous little issue that I hesitate to raise it here; on the other hand, what is “Still Life with Robin” but a place to ramble on about the quirks and quibbles of everyday life? If you find the subject of phone number formatting too ho-hum for you, let this introductory paragraph serve as warning to stop reading right now. Punctuation nitpickers (like me), read on.

This nation needs phone number format reform, and we need it NOW! Do you know how much time is wasted trying to copy phone numbers from one computer or mobile program to another, when there are so many conflicting ways for the numbers to appear? Take the standard example, 555-1212 and put a DC area code in front of it, and then consider the six most common ways you will find it displayed:

(202) 555-1212
202 555 1212

The problem kicks in when you need to copy the number from one source (let’s say it’s a website that lists all phone numbers in the international dialing pattern of +12025551212) and plug it into a newsletter article that follows the parenthetical area code format. That means you must copy and paste and then go back and eliminate the plus sign and the one, and then type in the parentheses, and then a space, and insert a hyphen between the sixth and seventh digits, for a total of six extra keystrokes. A mere matter of seconds, you say? True. Now imagine that you are handing in an article under deadline, with an appendix of websites and phone numbers, and you have to reformat ten, twenty, or even thirty numbers in the publisher’s preferred style. So now it’s starting to rise to the level of … well, okay, it is still at the level of a very minor annoyance, taking up, at most, ten minutes of your time. (I warned you that this was a petty complaint at the outset, didn’t I?)

Things do get markedly worse when either the source or the destination of the copied phone number is broken up into three separate boxes, one for the area code, another for the prefix, and the final box for the last four digits. Then you copy/paste, copy/paste, copy/paste, and you still have to type in the parens and dashes to make the number conform to the style guide.

There is a way out of this copying conundrum, and I offer it now, urging its immediate and universal adoption: Let’s all drop everything non-numerical in our phone numbers. Down with parens! Damn the dots! Lose the slashes and dump the dashes! (Dashes are particularly pernicious, cropping up all kinds of places where they’re better left out: joining two separate words that stand quite well on their own, or sticking a divider into what ought to be a single word -- my prime example: “email”. But this is clearly a subject worthy of a column in itself.)

So here’s what we do. From now on, we type all phone numbers with just spaces between the parts,: 202 555 1212. Simple. Elegant. Easy to read. Easy to type. And easy to copy and paste.

Now all I need is for every word processing program, website, style guide, and publication to fall in line. Start now, spread the word, and we can make this happen!

If anyone disagrees, don’t send me your hypenated or parenthisized phone numbers to discuss the matter; just shoot me your thoughts in the comments section below.

1 comment:

  1. That makes sense to me-and it's how European phone numbers are... Although there it's always tough to know whether you dial or drop the initial 0--I wonder if foreigners have the same trouble in the US--i.e. knowing whether to dial the 1?