I'm sure many of you have been in this situation—I'll be on hold for a bit and some automated voice will say

Your call will be answered in the order it was received.

I understand what they're saying, but I believe it's phrased wrong. They're saying that my call has a place in a sequence of calls, and they'll all be answered in the same order in which they were received.

There must be, as far as I know, multiple (or, a list of) things in the subject of a sentence in order for the action on the subject to be done in an order.

I generally steer away from customer service phone calls, but in the few that I've done, I've heard this phrasing more than the alternatives, which can be something like:

Calls are answered in the order in which they were received.

To me, this latter usage seems more reasonable, and "correct" (because I've always seen the "in which" construction as grammatical—though it seems awkward to many).

I'm wondering—

  1. (based on a comment) Is it acceptable to refer to the position an of an item in a list as its "order"?
  2. Is the former quoted phrase more common and accepted? If not, is its implication well understood, or does it warrant rephrasing?

(edit based on my meta question/answer regarding this )

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it seems to be complaining about a pet-peeve and not really about the English Language. – Jim Jul 24 '14 at 14:41
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    I'm not complaining as much as I'm asking if it's actually poor phrasing or if it bothers anyone else. – user85526 Jul 24 '14 at 14:42
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    I think the usage might be reconciled with prescriptivism by considering the greater context of the statement. Yes, you are only a single caller, and you have placed a singular call, but the context of the statement is multiple calls. Your call is one in an array of calls that need to be answered in a certain order. – Lumberjack Jul 24 '14 at 16:30
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    While one thing cannot be placed "in order" by itself, it can be considered "in order" when compared to its peers. Is this series in order? 1,2,3,4. Is the bold numeral in order? 2,4,6,8. A single item without any comparative context cannot be said to be in order, but I don't believe that is the case here. Your call will be answered in the order it was received (in comparison to the other callers that are also on hold.) Much like the 6 is in order when considered in the context of the series 2,4,6,8. – Lumberjack Jul 24 '14 at 16:31
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    I find it mildly amusing that your question has been put 'on-hold' and the question still remains - will it be reviewed in the order it was received? – Frank Jul 25 '14 at 16:45

When you're wondering how natural a phrase is one thing to do is to consider how else it could be phrased. I'm having a really hard time thinking of anything that would be even approximately the same as the sentence in question. The closest I could come up with is:

Your call will be answered according to the order it was received in.

Your suggested alternative ("Calls are answered in the order in which they were received.") is a very different sentence and pragmatically can't be considered to be a good alternative. This is because the original sentence focuses "your call", but this alternative does not. It is impersonal and the caller won't feel like they are being addressed properly.

This use of order is very common. Here are some more examples from the wild:

This ticket has been closed, and we’ll respond to your original request in the order it was received

They passed a microphone down the row, each calling a word in the order it was listed

Each configured authentication method is examined in the order in which it is configured

your ticket will come in to the cook in the order it was given

It appears that this usage is more common with plural or mass nouns, but it's still fairly common with singular nouns.

So is it common and accepted? Definitely.


It's an indication that your call is in a First-In-First-Out queue. From the Wikipedia,

It is analogous to processing a queue with first-come, first-served (FCFS) behaviour: where the people leave the queue in the order in which they arrive.

It's an audible indication that they are processing the queue, since you cannot tell where you are in line. Further, that if you leave the queue and return you will start at the back of the line.

  • In your Wikipedia quote, the subject that is leaving the queue is plural. This makes sense, but is it a requirement for that sentence? Can you also say "each person will leave the queue in the order in which he or she arrives"? – user85526 Jul 24 '14 at 15:16
  • @GeorgeCapote I can parse that question. What problem do you see with it? – Elliott Frisch Jul 24 '14 at 15:19
  • A single person is singular. Can a single person leave in a certain order? Can a single call be answered in an order? Don't you need multiple things for them to be in an order? – user85526 Jul 24 '14 at 15:21
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    How many calls can you make on one phone? How many calls can you receive with one hundred phones and one hundred people? How many people are each of those people talking to? Hint: It's all of one (because a call is 1:1) and one hundred (because there are 100 conversations) or two hundred (because there are 200 people). English is ambiguous. You work it out with context. I guess the context is that a single person is not really a queue (outside of the mathematical sense). – Elliott Frisch Jul 24 '14 at 15:23
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    @GeorgeCapote You may feel it is awkward, you may hate it. But, it is perfectly clear English in context. And it is a very popular phrasing in my experience. – Elliott Frisch Jul 24 '14 at 16:21

I agree, there cannot be an order if there is only a single item.

It seems to be a paraphrase of the plural: "Your calls will be answered in the order in which they were received" (plural 'your'), which makes perfect sense.

  • Well sure it does, but is it also the case that their sentence makes no sense? Or is it so understood and used by everyone that it's become a reasonable way to say what they mean? – user85526 Jul 24 '14 at 15:04
  • Well, it's not correct, but it is understood. The problem is, I suppose, that there is no better way to convey what they mean. "Your call will be answered in due time"? "We'll answer your call when we get to it"? "There's a bloody queue young man"? How would you phrase it so it's both correct and polite? – Mark Shovman Jul 24 '14 at 15:20
  • The way you did, "Your," in this case, referring to all customers currently on hold. – user85526 Jul 24 '14 at 15:23

protected by tchrist Jan 21 '17 at 0:52

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