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Formatting Phone Numbers
August 7, 2007 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Why are certain phone numbers written out differently on web pages, e-mails, business cards, etc? Such as 123-456-7890 or 123.456.7890? How did this originate and are there situations where one format is more appropriate than another?
posted by debit to Grab Bag (40 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would think that using dots was born out of the fact that word processes take hyphens as a point for wrapping text, so you can easily get:

"123-456-
7890".

The dots don't separate at the end of a line, letting the whole phone number reside on one line.

The Chicago Manual of Style makes no mentions of using dots in phone numbers, only displaying entries about suing hyphens in phone numbers. So technically I guess hyphens are most "correct" but dots are most useful.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 10:51 AM on August 7, 2007


I just attribute it to style, and looking cool. The periods are probably a reflection of the increasing prevalence of "dots," deriving from the web and e-mail addresses.

You see it in other things too, like times of day (10.51 am), or dates (8.7.2007).
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:51 AM on August 7, 2007


It's a style thing.
posted by gomichild at 10:53 AM on August 7, 2007


As far as I know, the "dashes" format is the correct one, as far as US style is concerned. The "dots" format may just be some style that is preferred by some.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the steady march away from the traditional format: (212) 555-1212. The area-code-in-parentheses format was there for the very reason you'd expect it to be; some people who might be reading the phone number needed to dial the area code and some people did not. If you happened to live in the 212 area code some time in the 1970's you probably didn't need to dial 212, you could just dial 555-1212 and be connected. Recently, however, more and more places require 10-digit dialing even for local calls. The area code has become more of a necessity, and, therefore, less parenthetical.
posted by jckll at 10:54 AM on August 7, 2007


My sense was that "dots" were more conventional abroad, or at least some places overseas; those using them stateside may have picked up the habit.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 10:54 AM on August 7, 2007


When I'm designing business cards/corporate identities? It's just about design. It's just about making things look pretty. Whatever seems to look "right" on the page. Sometimes hyphens are fine. Sometimes I'll put the area code in parenthesis. Sometimes I use nothing but spaces. Sometimes I use dots. That's just the wacky way I roll.

Do not try to understand why I do things. Many people, including me, have failed before you.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:55 AM on August 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thirding the "it's a design/style" answer. I'm guilty of it myself. It used to really stand out when no-one else was doing it. These days, I wonder if going back to hyphens wouldn't stand-out more. L
posted by Thorzdad at 10:59 AM on August 7, 2007


I asked this question when I went to work for an international software company in the 90s. I was told that, around the world, people use dots or spaces more than dashes and brackets. Also, we were told that brackets and dashes looked less clean. So we were to write our phone number as 604.XXX.XXX. However, because many people would be calling long distance, we were to also include the country code. So we were to write +1.604.XXX.XXXX. The dots also had the advantage of not breaking in funny ways and I guess some hyphens are bigger or smaller, depending on what digits they are between and what typesetting is done. I don't know if any of this is true, though.
posted by acoutu at 10:59 AM on August 7, 2007


987-654-3210 is Associated Press style for phone numbers—so if you see a phone number in a news article (and many magazine articles), it'll be this way. AP style has 800 numbers sans the 1- prefix you so often seen in commercials, as well, and if there's an extension, the format is like so: 987-654-3210, ext. 12.

Most publications have a shorthand for extensions in listings, though—one of the ones I work for does it like this: 987-654-3210 x12.

The standard in most U.S. formats, not just AP, is to hyphenate phone numbers. But a current style trend is to use dots—seems to have become a big print/Web design thing, then "trendy people of the world" saw that and began using it on their Web sites and business cards.

I agree with TheSecretDecoderRing that a lot of this probably also stems from increasing public familiarity with Web addresses and IP addresses.

But this:

You see it in other things too, like times of day (10.51 am), or dates (8.7.2007).

is just wrong.
posted by limeonaire at 11:08 AM on August 7, 2007


Edgy typographers replace your punctuation with hipper variants to justify their continued existence in an era of accessible desktop type-setting. Curmudgeonly but true.
posted by sonofslim at 11:11 AM on August 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure where it originated and am pretty sure it's a style thing too, but would like to point out that using fancy nonstandard formatting for phone numbers is increasingly annoying as more people use browsers that can also dial phone numbers (like on mobile devices or Skype-equipped computers.) If the number's formatted normally, you just click it and it dials. Otherwise you need to copy/paste into another app.

I don't care how you do it on your business card, but maybe I will once phone cameras as barcode/OCR devices become practical. Standards are pretty handy, really.
posted by contraption at 11:11 AM on August 7, 2007


If you happened to live in the 212 area code some time in the 1970's you probably didn't need to dial 212, you could just dial 555-1212 and be connected

The 70s, yes. Also, the 80s and 90s. 10-digit dialing didn't begin in NYC until 2002. An time-capsule of an article from the Gotham Gazette complaining about it.
posted by desuetude at 11:27 AM on August 7, 2007


I use dots. It drives a few people I know crazy, but I can type a phone number without using the shift key that way.
posted by Kwantsar at 11:32 AM on August 7, 2007


Exactly. Dots are awesome because I can do it all on the 10-key.
posted by mckenney at 11:36 AM on August 7, 2007


I've designed business card for people with both, for me its really just a style choice. For my own use, I'll often type them in with dots, perhaps unconsciously saving the shifting.
posted by jjb at 11:40 AM on August 7, 2007


Exactly. Dots are awesome because I can do it all on the 10-key.

Take a look at the top right corner of that 10-key...

-----------------
posted by jckll at 11:44 AM on August 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


An time-capsule of an article from the Gotham Gazette complaining about it.

Great find, desuetude. The funny thing is that even in hindsight, that article looks alarmist, since I'm from Maryland, the first state to make 10-digit dialing mandatory. We switched over for good in 1996.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:45 AM on August 7, 2007


I note that the North American Numbering Plan Administration uses a style like 123-456-7890.

I started using spaces on my Palm address book because the screen is so narrow. Spaces are thinner than hyphens and leave more space for the name.
posted by grouse at 11:45 AM on August 7, 2007


(123) 456-7890 is, I think, the "standard" or at least traditional format.

123.456.7890 is for style, and frankly I love it. I use it on my own business cards and other design elements, and sometimes for clients. Some client HATE it.

I think so many people like the style because it seems more minimalist and understated. Plus you can brag that you are saving ink (or pixels) and then act all superior to all the ink-wasters out there.
posted by The Deej at 11:46 AM on August 7, 2007


but maybe I will once phone cameras as barcode/OCR devices become practical

Which is the reason a lot of Japanese business cards have QR codes on them already.

We've gone beyond the dash or dot question. (~_^)
posted by gomichild at 11:48 AM on August 7, 2007


The dots are indeed a design convention. When I was an undergrad graphic design student in the 90s I remember encountering it in European design annuals and thinking it looked avante garde. Now it's more common.

Heedless of limeonaire's dismissal, Edward Tufte advocated using dots instead of colons for time in many of the timetable redesigns in Envisioning Information because the dot is less visually active than the colon.

Finally, typographers are sensitive to the fact that hypens are designed to be used with lower case letters so that the hypen sits right in the mid-point of the letter's x-height. When hypens are used with numerals (as in phone numbers) or all caps, the hypens appear too low, and need to be manually baseline-shifted up a half point or more so that they appear visually centered. This isn't an issue for dot-delimitted phone numbers.
posted by Jeff Howard at 12:00 PM on August 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Which is the reason a lot of Japanese business cards have QR codes on them already.

Oh yeah, I keep forgetting US handsets are 10 years behind the rest of the world. Which is an AskMe unto itself. US web designers should be even more cautious about number formatting than seems natural, then, since an international audience is more likely to be using phone browsers than the local people they're thinking of as their target audience. Actually, though, mot phone browsers recognize the dots. Spaces are the real problem.
posted by contraption at 12:00 PM on August 7, 2007


ahem. hyphen, not hypen.
posted by Jeff Howard at 12:04 PM on August 7, 2007


Heedless of limeonaire's dismissal, Edward Tufte advocated using dots instead of colons for time in many of the timetable redesigns in Envisioning Information because the dot is less visually active than the colon.

I once had a very old, very large clock radio that used a single dot between electro-mechanical flip-leaf hour and minute numbers, so dotted time has some practical consumer history too.
posted by kowalski at 12:24 PM on August 7, 2007


To me, the dot format looks like someone's trying to look cool. On me, this often has the opposite of the desired effect.
posted by amtho at 12:30 PM on August 7, 2007


my company considers dots to be the international style when ordering business cards, and dashed to be the American style.

Also, my iphone dials dotted phone numbers just fine!
posted by matty at 12:30 PM on August 7, 2007


I once had a very old, very large clock radio that used a single dot between electro-mechanical flip-leaf hour and minute numbers, so dotted time has some practical consumer history too.

That clock used to be mine -- I'm afraid the top dot just broke, and wouldn't flip any more. I have an extra, now, if you want one.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 12:47 PM on August 7, 2007


FWIW, I use dots just because it's easier to input on my Treo.

I'd just as soon do 1234567890 but that's too unreadable. (123) 456-7890 is how I format them in Outlook, but when I input a number on my phone, I don't want to deal with using the shift key and special characters to get dashes or parens.

The period, though, is a dedicated key, so 123.456.7890 it is. If it happens to be stylish too, so be it. ;)
posted by fogster at 12:54 PM on August 7, 2007


"AP style has 800 numbers sans the 1- prefix you so often seen in commercials, as well...."

The "1-800" in commercials is particularly moronic.

The "1" is just how you interface with most phone systems to enter a 10-digit phone number, it's not part of the number.

And in some locales (at least, as of a few years ago), you just entered the 800, or another area code, without any "1" -- so the commercials' "1-800" was flat-out wrong.
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:09 PM on August 7, 2007


I always thought the "1" had something to do with the international country code for phone numbers.
posted by HotPatatta at 1:57 PM on August 7, 2007


JimN2TAW, in cases where it's +1 (as in my example earlier in this thread), that represents the country code. Canada has the country code of +1 and I think it's the same for the US. I'm not sure this is relevant to 1-800 numbers, though.
posted by acoutu at 2:01 PM on August 7, 2007


Canada The US has the country code of +1 and I think it's the same for the US Canada.

Fixed that there for ya.
posted by jckll at 2:13 PM on August 7, 2007


Not only for the US and Canada, but 1 is the country code for all countries in the North American Numbering Plan which includes a good chunk of the Caribbean as well.
posted by mmascolino at 2:20 PM on August 7, 2007


The area-code-in-parentheses format was there for the very reason you'd expect it to be; some people who might be reading the phone number needed to dial the area code and some people did not.

This takes place even in countries where you have to dial the area/city code. For instance, you have to dial the city code in Germany, but you still see numbers like (069) 55 30 40.
posted by oaf at 2:29 PM on August 7, 2007


As a point of reference I first remember encountering this in the mid-90s when I worked for a large multi-national communications company. The European branch office contact details used the dot notation for their telephone numbers. That's where I picked it up from since to my eyes its far cleaner and less obtrusive than dashes or even worse parenthesis and dashes.
posted by mmascolino at 2:30 PM on August 7, 2007


There is an ITU [International Telecommunications Union] standard for phone numbers called E.164.

Personally, I prefer to not use any extraneous characters: +1 415 701 5500.
posted by phliar at 3:42 PM on August 7, 2007


I figured it was a design thing as well. My theory was that it had to do with the size of the characters. A smaller "character" between the numbers might make it easier to read.

I wasn't expecting this many responses. Thanks everyone!
posted by debit at 7:11 PM on August 7, 2007


Just to make sure it is clear, enclosing digits in brackets indicates that dialing those digits will depend on the caller's location. So, if you are in a 10 digit dialing area, do not put brackets around the area code, those digits will always be dialed.
posted by Chuckles at 8:23 PM on August 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


2001's ITU E.123 recommendation is still in force, so the canonical representation for national phone numbers is (NNN) NNN NNNN, and that for international phone numbers is +NN NNN NNN NNNN. As for what character to use between groups:
9.1 Grouping of digits in a telephone number should be accomplished by means of spaces
unless an agreed upon explicit symbol (e.g. hyphen) is necessary for procedural purposes. Only
spaces should be used in an international number.
posted by nicwolff at 9:36 AM on August 8, 2007


from nicwolff's ITU link:
7.2 Use of parentheses
The symbol ( ) (parentheses) should be used to indicate that the digits within the ( ) are not always
dialled.
To the extent that the standard recommends use of parentheses for the general case, I suggest that it is because the standard is anticipating that for most people area codes are not always dialed. Since the standard is a bit out of date, falling back to the first principal, as detailed in the standard itself, seems appropriate.
posted by Chuckles at 10:36 AM on August 8, 2007


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