Thursday, December 10, 2009

Three Little Numbers

Map of the original US area codes from
How do you write phone numbers?

When I was a kid in the countryside of Upstate New York, all we had to dial were the last four digits of the number, as long as we were calling within the town. Of course, we knew there were three digits at the beginning of the number, but it didn't come up very often.

As a young adult in the 1980s, working in Washington, D.C., I became familiar with the area codes of the major cities and some states. 202 and 212, of course, but also 617 (Boston), 213 (L.A.), 415 (San Francisco), 703 (Virginia), 201 (New Jersey) and 312 (Chicago). For some reason 315 (Syracuse) has always stuck with me.

The proliferation of area codes in the 1990s and later has diluted the pool so much that a casual user can't keep track of them all. I manage to remember that 718 is Brooklyn, but that's about it for the latter-day numbers (not counting the ones in my immediate area, which I have to know, of course).

When the phone companies or whoever it is that controls all this decided to add area codes, I was in favor of the idea of letting everyone keep their current number, while giving those with newly added lines the new area codes (I believe this was called the overlay plan). Or even better, I liked the idea that all cell phones would get new area codes, while the land phones would keep the old area code. I remember hearing that there wasn't actually an immediate shortage of numbers within the old area code -- it was just that all of the various phone providers were hoarding them in preparation for future customers.

In hindsight, it was probably best that we went with assigning the numbers geographically, because it has the best long-term clarity. Imagine trying to remember the number of someone if you couldn't use their location to keep track of their area code! It's bad enough when a St. Paul resident has a 612 cell phone, or vice versa.

I'm still annoyed that Minneapolis got to keep 612, of course, while St. Paul had to switch to 651. But I've gotten used to it.

What I haven't settled on is a way to write the 10-digit phone numbers. In my early years, I worked for a publication that differentiated area codes with a slash: 651/555-1212. I always kind of liked that, but it didn't catch on. Using parentheses -- (651) 555-1212 -- seems pretty quaint to me these days, and takes up two more character spaces than the other common option: 651-555-1212.

But maybe quaint is a good thing in our technological age, kind of like writing a letter in longhand on paper. It's a tiny memento of the past each time I see a phone number written this way, as if the area code wasn't completely necessary to getting connected (like any other parenthetical thought).


David Steinlicht said...

When I started reading your posting I thought you were going to go in the direction of liking -- or disliking -- numbers written in unusual, artistic ways.

I think the "classic" way says that it's a phone number, not some other kind of number.

(651) 555-1234

The hyphens-only method is now starting to look more normal to me, too.


What particularly bugs me, though, is the use of periods instead of hyphens.


I also don't like phone numbers without any punctuation. Not enough clues as to what kind of number it is.

651 555 1234

Says me.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

More organizations are adopting the hyphenated version for the very reason you cite--the area code is not optional. Periods are supposed to look chic and sophisticated, which makes them look pretentious.

Now, if you want to go way back to when I was a kid, our party-line phone number was 3342J. It seems strange that I remember it so clearly, since I was too young to actually use it, but there it is.

Barbara said...

A friend let me call home on her cell phone the other day, and I got a stranger answering instead of my husband. I had forgotten that older cell phones in the mid-Hudson Valley of NY state have the original area code (914) instead of the decades old "new" area code (845).

It seems to me that, here in the east, when the old area codes were split up, wealthier areas got to keep the original while less wealthy areas had to change: Manhattan kept 212, Westchester kept 914, SE coastal Connecticut kept 203.

Ms Sparrow said...

My sister likes to flaunt her memory by reciting childhood phone numbers from the 50's. The only one I remember was 28-J. This is what you told the operator when she answered and put the call thru.