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Am I correct in refusing to use parentheses around the area code for my telephone number? Those three digits are not at all incidental.

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    Did you mean "refusing" to use parentheses? It's a style choice. Refuse away, if you want. However, be aware that others prefer that style. – JLG Jan 17 '14 at 16:12
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    Do you also refuse to employ hyphens in phone numbers? These are conventions which make the numbers easier to read and remember. Moreover, the area code is 'incidental' when the call is local. – StoneyB Jan 17 '14 at 16:14
  • It's a formatting convention; in the telephone industry we call it an NPA. – Elliott Frisch Jan 17 '14 at 16:23
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    Whether or not it's a question of style (which it is), I'm not sure how it is a question of language. – RegDwigнt Jan 17 '14 at 16:25
  • I agree with @RegDwigнt - I feel that the question is off-topic. – Doc Jan 17 '14 at 18:53
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The area code (STDs as we call them in the UK) becomes less and less meaningful as more people adopt mobile phones - where you need to always dial the prefix - and other non-geographical ranges increase in popularity.

There's a convention to wrap the area code in brackets for legibility, however this is (ab)used by many British people when writing their numbers in international format, which I believe just confuses things.

Example 1, a valid "5+6" standard UK number: 01234 567890. Its international format, when being dialed from most overseas countries, is 44 1234 567890 - the leading zero is dropped.

However, if you saw a UK number written as +44 (0)1234 567890, what would you think you'd need to do to dial it from the US? You would be correct in thinking you'd need to drop the leading zero, but now UK people looking at the number written like that might be thinking "hang on, what does that mean?"

The bracket used like that just confuses things and is a hangover from a previous generation of telephone systems. I've decided brackets are only really useful for people reading their own country's numbers - simple, consistent number groupings (and spacing) makes it just as simple for everyone, plus there's no ambiguity over whether the bracketed numbers are required or whether you have to drop some of them depending on where the call is originating from.

I understand that when dialing the UK from the US or Canada, one must first dial the US overseas exit code 011, then the international format number - making our example 011 44 1234 567890. The bracket isn't that confusing, but it's certainly not helpful, and it's not being consistently used. (Because if you're used to seeing the prefix completely enclosed with brackets, and you've never had it explained, what does it mean if four of the five are not?)

Example 2: if I call the US from the UK, I dial 001 555 123 4567. Australia to US would dial 0011 555 123 4567.

The brackets neither hinder nor help, and for that reason I've long proposed they be scrapped for clarity. The same with dashes - they're a linguistic hangover and serve no purpose, the formatting equivalent of a coccyx.

Thus ends the direct answer. Read on for geeky stuff...


As an aside, certain areas of the UK have different number formats with their own anachronisms - making the case for dropping parantheses even stronger (this usually due to population density). All London numbers only ever begin 020, with two following blocks of four, e.g. 020 7123 4567 — yet people regularly misinterpret this as xxxx yyy zzzz, e.g. 0207 123 4567, mostly because there's not been enough raising of awareness by Ofcom (who oversee UK telecoms). The cities of Birmingham and Manchester (to name but two) use the format xxxx yyy zzzz - e.g. 0121 234 5678 or 0161 234 5678 - the area code being 0121/0161 and the rest just zones of exchanges.

Historically, billing for 'local' calls was less than 'national' calls (where your call would physically exit your exchange (American name = Central Office/CO) and be trunked to the destination exchange. Nowadays, the UK's telephone network is entirely IP from the moment your call reaches the frame in your exchange; it's converted back to analogue for the final copper loop to your callee.

Billing rates were normalised quite a few years ago; it costs no less to dial locally than it does nationally - the only difference being that if I lived in Manchester and called someone else in Manchester, I could omit the area code.

A handful of areas in the UK also have archaic assignments of extraordinarily-numbered prefixes: Kendal and its subsidiary exchanges are technically 0153 94, 0153 95 and 0153 96, but local residents mostly write them as 6 digit prefixes and 5 digit numbers; an example is 015395 60123. You'd never know this when dialing the full number, unless you were in the locality - and all the shops usually just list the last five digits (making it a great puzzle for those who don't live in the area)!

If you're interested in this kind of stuff, there's a great Wikipedia article to get you started.

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The choice of how to write down or print a telephone number consisting of three-digit area code and seven-digit main number is a matter of personal preference undoubtedly influenced by popular convention. The main forms that I've seen used on business cards in the United States are

(XXX) XXX-XXXX

and

XXX-XXX-XXXX

although I have occasionally also seen

XXX.XXX.XXXX

In none of these three cases is there any doubt what the numbers mean or how to dial them successfully, so it can hardly be argued that any of the forms is wrong in some existentially significant way.

As for the argument that the form (XXX) XXX-XXXX is logically flawed because it treats the first three digits as "incidental," I think that StoneyB's comment (above) is dispositive:

These are conventions which make the numbers easier to read and remember. Moreover, the area code is 'incidental' when the call is local.

What he means, of course, is that if you are dialing from a phone that has the same area code that the call recipient's phone has, you should not dial the first three numbers of the ten-digit set. The area code is relevant only in situations where you are dialing from a different area code—and in that sense the inclusion of the area code (in parentheses) makes sense as a way of indicating that the person placing the call may or may not need to dial those three numbers.

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