America By Numbers

(Etsy)

Is this said as sixty one zero eight or six thousand and one hundred and eight? (Etsy)

As Brits in the States quickly find out, we are indeed two nations separated by a common language, and when it comes to numbers, there’s plenty of room for confusion too.

I was reminded of this during my recent visit home in June, when I struggled to process the phone numbers rattled off on radio stations and TV ads. “Give us a ring on treble three double four double three two double eight,” or something like that.

In the States, the same number would go something like “Thirty three, thirty four, forty three, thirty two, eighty eight.” (Yes, I know it’s not a real U.S. telephone number, just play along.) I’m sure Americans would understand the “double” number if they heard it, but the confused look in their eyes made me abandon it long ago.

When my mother first started visiting me in the U.S. she hated answering the phone if I was unavailable as it inevitably meant taking down a phone number. (These were the days before caller ID and all that.) A phone number as simple as 555-7200 would be read out to her as “five fifty five, seventy two hundred” and would end up on paper as 5 50 5 70 200. Where to begin in figuring out what the number really was?

Door numbers are also treated quite differently on either side of the pond. Although house numbers in the U.K. never reach the multi-digit situation we see in the States, they wouldn’t be pronounced the same anyway. Because of the grid system in many U.S. areas, your door number can be up in the thousands even if there are only fifteen houses on your block. I don’t think I know anyone who lives in a house with a number smaller than 100, although downtown Chicago has single digit buildings.

As with phone numbers, large house numbers are split into sing-song couplets, so 2120 becomes “twenty one twenty” instead of “two thousand, one hundred and twenty” as a Brit would say. (Perhaps this is the reason why the grid system never took off there — it’d be verbally exhausting.)

And of course, pronouncing said numbers is a whole ‘nother world of problems. I have found that it’s far easier to say “zero” than “oh,” and of course “nought” is out of the question as they think I’m saying “not.” The number four doesn’t fare much better since Americans around me tend to think I’m saying “oh,” as in the number zero.

That reminds me of a party I went to when I first came to the States. It was someone’s 40th birthday and the guests were to chant “Lordy, lordy, Tim is forty” when the surprised birthday boy walked through the door. Doesn’t have quite the same rhyming power with a British accent!

For more on British and American numbers, have a look at this great YouTube video:

Do you feel like dealing with numbers is like another language?

  • ukhousewifeusa

    How funny, I was just wondering about this the other day. Only 6 houses in our road and it starts at 6308 and there is no sequence to the numbers either!

    • expatmum

      My in-laws used to be 2000 on a small street and the area wasn’t even on a grid???

      • Kibber

        Typically towns/cities are set up’grid like’ even if it is not apparent while navigating a neighborhood. There is a starting point (lets say ELM) where the first block to the east , is E. Elm and the houses start at 100, first block to the west, W. Elm and the houses start at 100 and it goes on up, so if you live 5 blocks down, you are on the 500 block of Elm. There is always a pattern, but is might be readily apparent, particularly in rural areas, but when looking at an aerial map with a grid overlay, it all comes together. Unless of course you had a really horrible city planner :)

        • Abbynormal

          OMG.. you did NOT read what was said.. I quote”A phone number as simple as 555-7200 would be read out to her as “five
          fifty five, seventy two hundred” and would end up on paper as 5 50 5 70
          200″ He is saying THAT IS HOW HIS MOTHER WOULD SEE IT! Daft ppl!

          • Disa

            Where is anybody saying that? I believe we are saying that everyone in the States would say “five five five” for the phone number prefix rather than “five fifty-five.”

          • expatmum

            The post says “A phone number as simple as 555-7200 would be read out to her (the mother) as “five fifty five, seventy two hundred” and would end up on paper as 5 50 5 70 200.”
            It is a true example of something that happened, but clearly, one person could not be all over the States at the same time. It is called “an example”. It may not have been experienced by everyone in the USA, but it is enough to thrown off a Brit (as it clearly did). This is after all, a post for Brits in the USA – covering all bases, including the unusual.

      • SAB

        If you are on a numbered street (for example, we live on 34th), numbering starts at the “center” non-numbered street. So, if Main street is the street you start with, going either East or West, each block has a set of house numbers that increase by the 100s. So, one block east of Main, you’ll have houses numbered 1 – 99 (and, the number of the house depends on what lot the house occupies the most of – most don’t sit on lot 1, but many fully encompass lot 10). For my street, we are 20 blocks away from Main and our house covers the #5 lot. So, we are 1905.

        Now, apartment complexes that choose to number their apartments like house numbers just mess the whole thing up!

        • x

          1) not everywhere
          2) unrelated

      • Drs Coffee Cup

        Rural addresses for 911 mapping have become a nightmare. Not only do I have 4 digits in my house number but also 4 digits in my street number! We used to have “Rural Routes” and then a single number, written as RR 2 with a box number after it, rarely past double digits. So exactly how would a Brit say “6108?” In America we would say 6-1-oh-8 or sixty-one-oh-8, neither are the examples given. The “oh” is probably the most confusing thing for non-American speakers since it would mean the letter O to them, but that is how we say zero when it’s in a phone number or address.

        • expatmum

          It’s just that the “oh” sounds like we’re saying “four” to some Americans.

    • mrv

      street numbering in the US really depends on the individual town, and what the postal system will recognize. Typical numbering systems I’ve seen:
      Monotonously increasing integers from some arbitrary start point to a road (usually with even on one side, odd on the other). Lots of places will start with 1 and go up from there (so plenty of places <100). Problem becomes when you sandwich another house/building between two existing that already have numbers (my hometown would just create a new "road" and renumber everyone starting from the new development!)
      You can get some huge numbers if you modify this a bit using the nearest numbered cross-street as a locator, often before but sometimes after the starting numbers. Sometimes there's a '-' in there, often not.
      Some places will do mail based on lot number off of a town property map. I've also seen some remote places where the mail goes to a map grid co-ordinates!

  • Mark

    I’ve never seen a number in the US written any other way than (###) ###-####

    • Mark

      *Telephone number

      • dw

        That’s because all US (and Canadian) numbers have the same format, and it hasn’t varied since the 1950s. In the UK, there are many different formats, and they have changed a lot over time. Some more discussion here.

        • expatmum

          My mother’s number (in the UK) has a 5 digit area code and seems to go on forever. The people across the street have the three digit area code.

          • Keri in KY

            Sounds horridly confusing. Glad our American system for phone numbers is uniform! Yours sounds almost as painful as trying to get directions to a place in Japan (extremely confusing numbering system for addresses! One must use landmarks to get to destinations, the house numbering system is completely useless for directions)

  • Linda Edwards

    LOL, on my street, my house number is 5. That’s it. Just one number!

  • Jane

    An American would NEVER read the first three digits of their phone number as five fifty five.

    • expatmum

      Technically it’s the middle three numbers since that example didn’t include the area code; I’ve actually heard it like that, or a variation thereof (since 555 doesn’t really exist). Must be a regional thing.

      • http://dangarion.com/ DanGarion

        Most Americans would say Five Five Five. Just like in the movies. Five Five Five is the universal prefix used in movies.

      • Disa

        I’ve done a lot of phone work, taken numbers from people nationwide. Out of thousands upon thousands of phone calls, I’ve only heard the area code or prefix said like that (five fifty five) a handful of times,and it was always by a non-native English speaker.

      • Jane

        Technically, it’s not a regional thing. I currently live in your region and have lived in several other parts of the US and in my 53 years I have never heard any American say the first 3 digits of their phone number any other way than as 3 individual numbers. Technically, your phone number is composed of the set of seven numbers and can be preceded by your area code if needed, so in your example 555 would indeed be the first 3 digits of the phone number.

        • expatmum

          No longer – in the last few years, we have had to dial the area code when phoning someone in our own area code. So I have to teach my kids to dial their area code (or their neighbors’ which can be different – 773 or 312). We ALWAYS say our area code now, when giving out the number to anyone asking, since it can be different from one street to the other here. You can argue, but this is the fact in downtown Chicago.

    • Kibber

      Sorry expatmum… I have lived ALL over the states and have NEVER heard anyone say five fifty five. One always says the prefix individually and either states the last four individually , four six two two, or as Fourty-six twenty-two… or as example above if it ends in 2 zeros, seventy- two hundred…. it’s easier to remember a number if you use 2 two digit number rather than 4 individual numbers.

      • James

        In California, at least where I live in California people say the first three digits like that; 555 = five fifty five. Now it could just be the way my friends and I say it but we do

        • geri031706

          Californians are always a bit different than the rest of the country. :)

          • BryceM

            Native Californian here, never heard of five fifty-five triple digit wording for phone numbers. Plus being in sales and with the crappy cell phone services people call me on all the time. I always say each number, every time and zero is for zero no O’s.

    • http://such-a-tragic-thrill.tumblr.com/ VBFan

      South Eastern American Born and Raised. I have a 10 digit phone number. I’ve always heard, and personally have always said each number individually. Like if the number was 4567 I would say “4,5,6,7″ not “45,67.” It’s the same thing with home addresses…

  • Sharon Stroud Broussard

    This is the second time that I’ve seen the statement “The number four doesn’t fare much better since Americans around me tend to think I’m saying “oh,” as in the number zero.” here…where, exactly, are you from? My mum’s family is from Buckinghamshire, and their “four” has never sounded like “oh.”

    • expatmum

      Not Buckinghamshire, obviously. There are lots of different accents in the UK, but southerners (like those from Buckinghamshire) tend not to acknowledge that fact. Since it’s the 2nd time you’ve heard that…. Must be from a northerner.

  • David K.

    I have never heard someone using something like “fifty five” in a phone number. For example the number 555-867-5309 would be read out as “five five five eight six seven five three oh/zero nine”. Sometimes you’ll get things like “triple 5 eight six seven…” or if it were a 443 area code “double four three”.

    • expatmum

      And you’re in the USA?

  • citydog

    I don’t think the author has actually lived in America, or else s/he doesn’t realize people are having a laugh.

  • http://dangarion.com/ DanGarion

    Everyone I have ever interacted with on the West Coast would never say a number like you have posted above. They always will say each number individually. Such as 17284 would be One, Seven, Two, Eight, Four. Even with phone numbers. This way there is no confusion.

    • expatmum

      OK, yes, regional.

  • Tester McGee

    Okay, not sure how no one has posted this yet, but here is an explanation from the awesome Kevin James on how to properly give a phone number.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZfu-MtDsX0

  • jumbybird

    Absolutely not, we’d say five five five seventy two hundred or if 3456 we’d say thirty four fifty six.

  • Shannon Jarrard Owens

    love it- but I say numbers in pairs- 33 44 51 98 etc… helps with my dyslexia- born in CA, but have lived in the states of AZ, IN, and eastern PA…

    • expatmum

      Yup – regional and not governed by a “rule”. But it seems that many people only believe what they’ve grown up with. It might be something to do with the fact that foreigners (Brits) hear what indigenous people don’t. It might be an exception to the rule but it makes the rule not, er, the rule.

  • Becca

    I agree with most other Americans posting here: Rarely do hear people say anything other than each individual number in a telephone number, i.e. five five five…

    House numbers are absolutely another story. My apt complex is 2002, which I generally say as two-thousand two, likely due to it being a year that I once said the same way. However, often when dictating it when placing an order over the phone, I say each number: two zero zero two, so as to avoid any confusion.

    And it’s not only in Chicago that number than 100 are used for buildings: My boyfriend grew up in Albany, NY at a house numbered 26. I personally have only lived in homes with four-digit numbers, save for my semester in London, where I lived at 15 Manson Place in South Kensington! :)

  • Cheryl

    I live in the U.S., and my address is 8. I believe the highest number on my street is 36.

  • Moeyknight

    Most of us here in the states do not say a phone number as you stated above. The first three numbers are almost always said separately while the last four are usually paired. Your example would most likely be said, “five five five, seven two zero zero” or “five five five, seventy-two hundred.” But almost never the way you described.

  • sheena

    No idea what part of Britain you came from but I never pronounced numbers in hundreds and thousands.To me 555-7200 would be 555 72 zero zero..And Even in the States that’s exactly how i respond

    • expatmum

      What?

  • Allison Warnock

    Most US say the first 3 numbers separate (five five five) and then lump the second 4 numbers (seventy-two hundred). I, personally, have never heard anyone ever say “five fifty-five” and I worked at a national call center dealing with people all over the US.

    As for address below 100, if you go to planned developments (much like the neighborhoods around South County, CA), you’ll find them all over. I lived in a house with address 5, my sister-in-law grew up in a house with address 2. Yes, it’s more common to see 4-5 digit house codes, but single digits do exist.

    • expatmum

      Yup – regional!

  • Susanne Adams Allen

    I wonder if you would find a difference between regions. I am from the southeast US where folks were loyal to the crown a bit longer than the Yankees, and I would read the house number as six thousand, one hundred and eight. When you talk about the way Americans speak, to which region do you refer? When I watch British TV shows, I am always amused by words the south kept that the British still use. The word “reckon” for instance marks an American as a southerner (automatically an ignorant hick in the minds of non-southerners). It is used in TV here to characterize the speaker saying “reckon” as someone slow or stupid. I hear it on your TV shows all the time and have to remind myself that it has no baggage for you.

    • Ginger Crawford

      Southern orthography has traditionally been closer to British, with “reckon”, “learnt” and many others. A lot of us use the term “bollocks”, for instance.Of course since we speak differently others see ignorance instead of difference due to tradition. We would never say the numbers as anything other than five five five.

      • expatmum

        The northern English slang is pretty close to southern US. In the NE of England we say “you all” quite a lot, which isn’t too far from “ya’ll”; we also use the word “reckon” a lot. But we’re also characterized as just having discovered the wheel.

  • Steven

    This is so different! I’ve watched British television for my whole life, and this actually makes quite a lot of sense. To the editor’s question, I always say ‘one one thousand’ but I have heard ‘Mississippi’.

  • Jane Peters

    What wasn’t mentioned is that Brits don’t say “zero” they say “O” as in “Oh”

    • expatmum

      Which sounds like “four” to many Americans (in my 23 years here.) So we learnt to say “zero”.

      • Keri in KY

        In the south we almost always say “o” rather than zero when saying our home or phone numbers. (zero is usually reserved for people with a different American regional accent or a non American accent) And when giving a phone number out we say usually “area code” then the three numbers individually, then a pause then the next three numbers of the phone number individually, only the last four numbers are sometimes paired, but usually not, usually they are also said individually.

  • Count The Shadows

    I never actually, when saying a phone number, say 58 as fifty-eight. I would probably be confused by that myself. I say each number individually, and depending on my mood, I will sometimes say either zero or oh for 0. Just whatever comes out first.

  • JaneJane

    We used to live on 12825 South Street and pronounced it 128 25 South. Around here in the West, we have lots of five-digit addresses.

  • Julia Mae

    I am American. My house number is 9. The address in the pic is sixty-one oh eight.

  • palmstring

    I’d rather say the number read individually as six one oh eight. I thought that there was something unique about it.

  • Angie

    I grew up in the Los Angeles area and then moved to Upstate NY, where I worked for years in a call center. Phone numbers in the USA need to follow a set pattern or they confuse people. The area code needs to be three numbers, said individually (unless you’re using 800 for an area code), followed by the 3 digit prefix, all numbers individually here, too, please, then the last four numbers, also individually articulated and sometimes in sets of two. For example, to say (222) 333-4455 as a phone number, the best way to communicate that is two two two (pause) three three three (pause) four four (optional pause) five five. Mix up the pattern and you mess with people’s minds. There would be some rare occasions where the same number might be rendered as two two two (pause) three three (pause) three four (pause) four five (pause) five. NOOOOOO! Saying numbers as “forty-four, fifty-five” communicates better than pausing in all the wrong places, but has always irritated me.

    For addresses, it depends on the number. I grew up at 15135, which I have always said as one five one three five. I lived at 134, which was one thirty-four. Then 309, which was three oh nine; 123 was usually one twenty-three but sometimes one two three; 109 was one oh nine. Right now I’m at 4809, which, as with the number in the example, is forty-eight oh nine in my head, and four eight zero nine if I’m giving my address to someone over the phone.

    For me, pronouncing my address now as four thousand, eight hundred nine would require too much thinking about the number of digits, and that won’t do at all ;).

    • expatmum

      Please write and blog a tutorial on this but add the possible variations!!! Also add the fact that a Brit will sometimes encounter Americans daring to stray from the norm as in my (American husband) who announces his last four digits as “eleven twenty nine” and the person who gave me their AREA code the other day as “Six Ten” as opposed to reading out all the numbers , as has been almost religiously professed in the comments.

  • geri031706

    Who would have thought this article would provoke so much chatter?

  • Brett Burnes

    You know what’s more meaningful and uplifting is thinking of the important things which Americans and Britons have in common, share similar travails, and a rich history of friendship and kinship. Maybe it’s better to define our relationship that way that with frankly insignificant (and as far as this column is concerned often incorrect) ways in which we differ.

  • S. Brewster

    When I say my phone number I say, five oh five, three one nine…etc. & when I say my house number I say one oh six oh five… am I wrong?

  • Giuditta

    Proper etiquette in “the olden days” was to write out numbers from one to ten for addresses on correspondence. This is still in use by Associated Press Style, the stylebook that guides most American newspapers; figures from one to ten are written out, and numbers from 11 and so on are written numercally.

  • rallybug

    Utah addresses make sense to me now – they are co-ordinates based on where, normally, Center St and Main St intersect. For example, 407 E 1525 S would be a house on the street 15.25 blocks south of the intersection, and 4.07 blocks east. It makes it easier to know where a house is than, say 407 E Kensington Ave…

    For SLC itself, the intersection is based on Main Street (running North South) and South Temple (running East West).

  • Lindsey

    “As with phone numbers, large house numbers are split into sing-song couplets, so 2120 becomes ‘twenty one twenty” instead of “two thousand, one hundred and twenty’”

    There’s a reason for this… in large cities anyway, the first two digits refer to the block – so it’s the 2100 block , house/building number 20. Right? So you know that, for example, 3201 Arch Street is on 32nd and Arch Streets. 3141 Chestnut Street is by 31st and Chestnut Streets. At least, that’s how it is in Philly. So saying it “Thirty-two, oh-one” makes sense.

    Though I’m not sure how it translates to smaller towns which don’t operate on a grid system like that.