David, another American who does language research in the UK, has blogged about something I've been meaning to blog about. I'm trying not to hold it against him, because he seems like a nice (AmE) guy/(BrE) bloke, and you should read his entry. The issue is how people read out or recite strings of numbers, such as phone numbers or credit card numbers. Take the number 8853, for example. Americans typically say that as eight-eight-five-three, whereas a BrE speaker would be much more likely to say double eight-five-three.

David's entry talks about the cognitive dissonance that he experiences when he is writing down a number and has to translate from double 8 to two eights. I completely identify with that feeling--it feels like the information is coming backwards. They say two, you write 2, but when they say double you have to wait to hear what you need to write and then write it twice. And when someone spells a word and they say double-u, you're expected to write W, not UU.

All the same, it is an aspect of BrE (and other Es) that I've embraced (my phone extension at work is two sets of double numbers), but one that's also led me astray. When I lived in South Africa, I had a credit card number with three zeros in it. Reading it out to people, I'd say seven-nine-triple zero (or whatever it was), which usually led to some consternation. People were used to hearing double zero, but triple zero didn't sit right, and they'd ask me to repeat the number. I think I made single attempt at quadruple four for another number, but that didn't go over well at all.

So, I've stuck with the doubles but given up on the triples and quadruples. (Nowadays, I say double four, double four when faced with 4444.) Better Half claims that he'd definitely use triple and might even use quadruple--but that he is extra careful in reading out numbers on the telephone and says "four [pause] four [pause] four (that's three fours)". But now he's added "I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask about these things." So, what do you do?


  1. 'Double', I think. I might use 'treble', certainly not 'triple'. But also, I'd never say 'zero', always 'oh'.

  2. As usual on this blog, I'm sent into many minutes of 'What DO I say? In what circumstances? Why?'
    Anyway, yes, 'treble' rather than 'triple' for me (BrE) too, and almost certainly two lots of 'double' rather than 'quadruple'. But not necessarily 'double' or 'treble' at all. I always pronounce my phone number (numbers changed slightly) 'eight eight four, eight four three'. I think I'm more likely to use 'double' at or towards the end of a number than the beginning, for some reason.

    As for 'zero', I would never use it to pronounce a phone number; always 'oh' - or 'hundred' or 'thousand'. So 02730 653600 is 'Oh two seven three oh, six five three six hundred', though my instinct if we swap it round to 600653 is 'six double-oh, six five three' (never 'oh oh', wherever in the number it falls). I sometimes use 'zero' when reading credit card or ID/account-type numbers over the phone, for clarity (with a special effort to do so, of course,if dealing with a code of numbers and letters in combination) but have found myself mixing 'zero' with 'oh' in the same breath (0490 - 'zero four nine oh') because it's basically something later-learnt and counter-intuitive to me.

  3. I routinely pronounce my ZIP code/postal code as "one triple oh three".

    The most difficult thing to me about how British people read telephone numbers is the pattern of enunciation. North Americans are very used to hearing all phone numbers enunciated thus (a fictional example): "two six one, five four three, eight nine seven oh", with a possible break before the last two digits. A number that comes at them like "two six, one five, four three, eight nine, seven oh" is very hard to follow or write down; still worse if it contains a mixture of 2-digit and 3-digit groups.

    However, all of us do somehow manage to write down numbers like "sixteen" most of the time without writing a "6" first, so some lookahead does exist.

    1. From the US here - I've actually had a lot of success reading numbers back to US citizens over phone by breaking the usual pattern -
      from (585)-234-1234 to 58 52 34 12 34, read as two digit numbers: fifty-eight, fifty-two thirty-four twelve thirty four. Generally that's only as part of a confirmation after the original pattern has been given.

  4. When I lived/worked in New York City, I'd often give the zip code as "one hundred [twenty-three/twenty-one/seventeen]
    or "one thousand [three]". In example you gave (8853), I'll tend towards "eighty-eight fifty-three".

  5. Do non-American English speakers ever break up large humbers into sets of small ones? Such as reading 8853 as "eighty-eight-fifty-three." Or even reading numbers like 115 as "one-fifteen?"

    I use a happy mixture of "zeros" and "ohs" myself - usually I use "zero" if it's the first number of a group, and "oh" if it is not. So I would read 0178 as "zero-one-seven-eight," while I would read 4601 as "forty-six-oh-one."

  6. I never use "double", and whenever someone on the other end uses it, I get that cognitive dissonance thingy and feel my brain working really hard for a fraction of a second to catch it.

    I live in the UK but speak English as a second (third?) language so this is probably due to what I'm used to from my other languages (Swedish and Estonian, neither of which uses the equivalent of "double" when reading out numbers).

    As for zero and oh, I use both. My mobile number starts with oh-seven-seven and not with zero. But my credit card number has a zero and not an oh in the middle. I think I use "oh" in cognitively simpler situations, such as phone numbers where you know what the first digit of the area code is so it isn't worth much attention. Credit card numbers are longer and have no such pattern so they get the longer, clearer version. But I've sometimes found myself mixing the two in the same string of numbers.

  7. By coincidence, a client earlier this week told me that her phone number had originally been 7777 (with the addition of extra digits over the years, it is now 470777). She explained that, although memorable, 7777 was not as convenient as it seemed, as nobody could "get" double seven, double seven, so she had had to use seven, treble seven. The current number was, of course, four seven oh, seven double seven.

    I tend to confuse people by giving my own phone number not in the BrE fashion, which splits a six-digit number into two groups of three, but in the French style, using three groups of two (it's the only way I can remember my number). For example, pj's eight eight four, eight four three, to a French-speaker, would be eighty-eight, forty-eight, forty-three. (In fact, to a French-speaker, those first two digits would of course be four-twenties-eight, but let's not go there.)

  8. My office telephone number, on the other hand, is 466666, which is impossible to recite in any way that people can understand at the first attempt. I tell them "press four, then keep pressing six until it rings."

  9. I had asked Better Half about treble before posting, and he said "No, definitely triple." And then he said the thing about not being the best person to ask. Now he's amused himself by coining the title The Trouble with Trebles, but he hasn't (got) anything to apply the title to.

    About British phone numbers, the way in which they are broken up into groups is much more variable than in the US, where there is a long history of a very clear 3-digit (AmE) area code, 3-digit exchange, 4-digit number. So, when they ran out of numbers within some area codes, the solution was not to make the numbers longer, but to add new area codes.

    In the UK, there has been some variation in length of numbers over recent decades and across different regions. Since I've lived here, the (BrE) dialling codes for London changed, so that they all start with 020, but central areas are 0207 while peripheral areas are 0208. Some people write the numbers as 020 7XXX XXXX, some as 0207 XXX XXXX (whether one uses hyphens or puts the space within the Xs in a different place is a different matter, which I don't want to get into). I suspect the former is used more by Londoners, as they need that 7 (or 8) when dial(l)ing a local number.

    As for whether one uses zero or oh, I think that varies a lot, both individually and contextually. People generally say oh at the front of a dial(l)ing code, but I generally say zero when reading out long numbers over the phone, as I've discovered that the credit card people (or whoever) tend to read the number back to me as zero even if I've said oh.

    Reading 8853 as eighty-eight fifty-three is another thing that is largely personal, though I think one hears it more in the US.

  10. The Boeing 777 has been known as the 'Triple 7' since its inception on a computer. 'Treble 7' sounds very wrong. Bizarrely it was also known as the 'seven seven seven' for short!

  11. I'm not sure I get the cognitive dissonance when hearing a 'double' or 'triple,' though it's not something I'd generally say myself. As for the prevalence of 'triple' in BrE, the only time I regularly come across three of the same numbers is the common 0777 beginning for a lot of mobile numbers. I always hear this said as "oh-triple/treble-seven," and generally say it this way for my own number, because people understand it easier.

    As for "oh" versus "zero" I use both, and always have, my phone number at home in the US has two in it - one in the area code which I always say as "oh" and one in the last four digits which I always say as "zero." I think there may be phonetic reasons for this, given the numbers before the zeros, three before the "oh" and two before the "zero." "Three" leaves my mouth more open and ready to say "oh," while "two" leaves the tongue high and ready for /z/.

  12. I'm suprised that native English speakers would get cognative twitches from "double three", as in English adjectives usually come before the noun, so we should be quite used to buffering much more abstract concepts like "a spinning yellow ball".

    (I guess we are a bit more flexible with adverbes?)

    I've often noticed that people tend to revert to their native language for counting. I wonder if people whose first language has the opposit word order would have more trouble with "double three"?

  13. But in taking down numbers from dictation, there usually aren't any adjective (three, six, lovely seven...). The thing about dictation is that you expect to write down everything that's said. But when it gets to double, there's nothing to write.

  14. A British husband of an American wife, living in the US, I think I'd find myself sounding out all of the numbers in a phone number here, but not in Britain - no idea why. It might be, as has been observed, the greater consistency of internal structure of US phone numbers. Maybe the reduced intrinsic structure in British numbers encourages us to impose structure by grouping numbers together wherever possible. In the US I guess the intrinsic structure is signalled with cadence, and an unstructured block can't be longer than four digits.

    I have noticed that my wife and I tend to communicate our street number differently. The number is 1117, which she typically reads as one one one seven, with a cadence that always strikes me as slightly uncertain, as if as she's doing it she's counting the ones out to make sure the number is right.

    Personally, eleven seventeen seems the perfect way to do it. It's entirely clear and unambiguous, and it does the same thing as the US phone numbers: it signals the internal structure. The number works to say that the building is number seventeen, on the eleventh block. This is a new concept to me, having grown up in Britain, where even four-digit street numbers are very unusual, and there isn't the same system of street blocks and block-numbering that's common in the US.

  15. In Australia, or at least in Sydney, home telephone numbers are (02) XXXX XXXX. But occasionally someone will flaunt this chunking for ease of memory. So a number (ignoring the area code) like 9530 0400 will become "nine, five, three hundred, (pause) four hundred".
    This I think is more cognitively dissonant to the hearer, because they're expecting a XXXX XXXX format and use the pause to demarcate and chunk.
    Similarly with mobile/cell phone numbers, which are always 04XX XXX XXX. Hearing someone recite a number with pauses that necessitate any other format is difficult to understand.
    As an aside, and I've only thought of this since writing the last paragraph, I can't even recite my mobile phone number in anything other than the 04XX XXX XXX format. If I say "oh, four, two, (pause)" then I have no idea what comes next and become utterly stuck.
    Try it on your own number. It's humorously distressing!

  16. when someone spells a word and they say double-u, you're expected to write W, not UU

    Sounds troublesome. Fortunately, that letter combination is rare in English and I've already learned how to spell vacwm correctly.

  17. At my first job in London, in 1980, the phone number was 222-4333. Everyone said it as "treble two, four, treble three". I don't recall any confusion.

    There were some elderly employees who remembered it as "Abbey two, four, treble three." The area of Westminster around the abbey had AB (22) phone numbers.

  18. The reason, if anyone cares, why North American telephone numbers are fixed-length and British ones are not is the premature superiority of now-obsolete U.S. telephone switch hardware. In the beginning, all hardware was step-by-step: each newly dialed digit caused the caller to be connected to a new group of possible subscribers, until the final digit determined the precise line being called. How long the telephone number was depended on how many steppers were in use, and it did not have to be in any way consistent: 3 could be a number and so could 40-49.

    The U.S. long ago abandoned this system in favor of crossbar switches, which process all the digits simultaneously. Unfortunately, a crossbar switch knows, in a physical sense, how many digits there are in the calling number, viz. seven. (The addition of three-digit area codes did not affect this, because in a given central office all calling numbers shared the same area code; only with the advent of computer-controlled telephone switches was it possible to have multiple area codes in the same location.)

    Britain never went through the crossbar stage, going for the most part straight from step-by-step to electronic switching. Therefore, the original variable-length numbers never had to be eliminated as they were in the U.S.

  19. Our phone number at work is A111BC (numbers substituted, obvs) and whenever I say it as 'A treble one B C', people get confused and think I've only given them five digits instead of 6. It annoys me when people say 'zero' not 'oh', I don't know why!

    Your comment further up about London numbers reminded me of Leeds numbers. The area code is 0113 (like other big cities like Manchester or Sheffield or Nottingham [you can tell I'm a Northerner]) but there is nowhere currently in Leeds with any number after the 3 than '2'. So the area code might as well be 01132, and many people give it as such. Similarly, the Newcastle code is 0191 but all Durham numbers start 0191 3 - but that's only helpful if you actually know that 0191 3 equals Durham, of course.

    The issue about French-speakers giving number is sets of two recalls the horror of French listening exercises when we would desperately try to pick up several garbled numbers!

  20. Don't Walloons say "nonante" rather than "quatre-vingt dix"? Do Walloons and Frogs say telephone numbers differently? Do Wallons and Flems?

  21. english phones numbers come in very cohesive sets in my opinion. the first five digits are the area code (i've never heard it called a dialling code), the first set of three narrows it down to a few streets, or in my case a small village - all the numbers in my home village begin 01*** 860. followed by the final three digits which give you the specific house you're ringing. since my home phone number contains a double digit i feel qualified to say that i've always given it as X double Y and have never heard any confusion.
    an interesting source for this may be tv or radio shows which give out a number to call or text answers, comments or questions to. i wonder if there's a pattern to be found there?

  22. When I lived in Geneva I said "octante" and "nonante"...

  23. Local phone numbers in the UK nowadays vary between five and eight numbers, (six being most common) with the area code expanding the whole number, including the initial 'oh', to eleven. However when we got our first phone some 30 years ago, I seem to recall that the number was 08243 314 ("oh eight two four three, three one four" with a breath between the exchange code and the local number).

    Nowadays, my office number is "five hundred, four hundred", and my home number is "five hundred, nine five nine".

    Incidentally, when spelling internet URLs in Welsh, it's normal to begin with "oo-driplyg" (triple-w).

  24. Back to letters, I've reali{s/z}ed that, despite my comment about double-u, I have come to use double in spelling my name: ell-why-double-en-ee. Not something I did before coming to Britain.

  25. For me (BrE), I use "double" frequently (my [BrE] mobile / [AmE] cell phone contains two sets), and I have no problem with cognitive problem with people saying triple/treble/quadruple. However, what really throws me is the use of "hundred" or "thousand". I can just about cope with it at the end of a number, but anywhere else just makes no sense to me.

    Years ago, my phone number (excluding the dialling code, which I would never call an area code) was 50062. To me, this was always "five-double-oh-six-two". Once or twice, though, I heard people say it as "five-hundred-sixty-two", which to me would make it simply 562 (and I would imagine this would be all the more so for an AmE listener, given that it's much more common in AmE to leave out "and" in a number like that).

    By the way, "oh" rather than "zero" most of the time, though I will sometimes use zero on a crackly phone line as "oh" can be misheard as "eight".

  26. Just remembered the decades-old advertising jingle for ChildLine, which read the number (0800 1111) as "Oh-eight-hundred, double-one, double-one". How would that read in AmE?

  27. In my original post, I may have exaggerated the amount of problem the "double" causes for me. And like other AmE posters I do sometimes use "double" notation myself (as in the example of ZIP codes mentioned by a couple of comments above).

    But sometimes other people have problems understanding me when I don't use "double" as they might expect. Take my phone number, 020 8800 #### (I use this notation as a Londoner: the last 8 digits can stand on their own as a local number for all of London). The extra 8 often gets swallowed up if I don't call it "double". So I get to the end of the number, but the person I'm talking to is expecting one more digit.

    I tend to use "oh" much more often than "zero" when I recite numbers, unless someone is having trouble understanding me (quite often the case due to a combination of my accent and bad telephone manner). I also use "hundred" or "thousand" when zeros occur at the end of a numeric unit (say a 4-digit block of digits in a credit card number, or a telephone number chunk like US (###)###-####). Which sometimes causes trouble if my idea of unit doesn't correspond with someone else's, like UK mobiles which follow the format 07 #########, but it's anybody's guess how the remaining nine digits will be clustered (it appears that the industry standard is 07### ### ###, but my experience is all over the place).

    lynneguist wrote Reading 8853 as eighty-eight fifty-three is another thing that is largely personal, though I think one hears it more in the US.

    I tend to agree. I was mostly cured of this habit by spending a year in the Netherlands. In Dutch, the ones digit is uttered before the tens digit (e.g. "three-and-fifty" for 53). And phone numbers are usually listed (as I vaguely recall) in a format that encourages this kind of clustering, like (0)24 ## ## ###. No one ever got my number right.

  28. This US English speaker would say "0800 1111" as "oh eight hundred ... one one one one".

  29. No idea how local this is, but:

    (nine*) four eight one, double one, double one, pizza hut delivery.

    *The extra digit was added later, this jingle appears not to have been prosodically affected.

  30. Interesting to hear so many people fall in the British or American pattern.

    Coming from India where we follow the Queen's English, now suitably evolved in to a rich dialect called Hinglish, I would use the traditional British pattern of "double eight five three" when in India.

    However, here in the US, I often say "thirteen thirty-three" (1333) for my apartment (I mean "flat") number. However, I've often have had to spell it out to "one three three three" on the phone.

    Result of offshoring call centers, no doubt?


  31. I have to concur with Lazygal. The number of my old house was 11919 -- five places but only two digits. I always had to repeat "one-one-nine-one-nine". I discovered that people could more readily accept "eleven-nine-nineteen". I think part of it has to do with man's ability to remember numbers. The more numbers you're given, the more likely you are to forget one of them. So with a string of, say, seven digits, it's often easier to remember that as four numbers (grouped in whatever way seems most useful) instead of as seven individual numbers.

    As for doubling, would BrE speakers ever ever refer to, say, 41419 as "double-forty-one nine," or is doubling and tripling (or trebling) reserved for single digits?

    And I'm on the other side of the fence than Rebecca. I hate it when people say "oh" instead of "zero." "Oh" is a letter, not a number, and there are no letters in my phone number.

  32. Talking of doubled letters, I used to work with someone whose surname was Attwood. The spelling? A double-tee, double-u double-oh dee.

    And please put down a vote for 'triple' rather than 'treble'; a geographical thing maybe?

  33. In America, at least the parts I've lived in, there's a difference between conventions regarding saying phone numbers vs. addresses. My address growing up was 1404, and that was fourteen-oh-four. It would never have occurred to anyone to say one-four-zero-four. I think it's because there was a 14th street, the cross-street, nearby. That was in North Carolina. But in San Francisco, I lived at three-eighty, fifteen-eleven, ten-seventy-one, twelve-twenty-three, and five-seventy-nine, among other addresses. There were no Third, Fifteenth, Tenth, etc., streets nearby. I don't know about Belgium, but in France, phone numbers are always read out as pairs of numbers, such as zéro-deux, cinquante-cinq, soixante, zéro-zéro, dix-sept.

  34. Austrlia's emergency number is 000, and is always (in my experience at least) referred to as "triple-oh" or "triple-zero", never "zero-zero-zero" or "oh-oh-oh" (which to me sounds less like an emergency and more like a pop lyric which should be followed by "baaaaaybeee").

  35. This is interesting. I haven't seen anyone make a suggestion of saying "naught" instead of "oh" or "zero." I'm sure I've heard my British husband and/or in-laws using this in numeric expressions.

    This also made me realize something curious about how I express numbers. I would never read 8853 in a phone number or credit card number as "eighty-eight fifty-three" but would instantly do so if it were an address. I can only assume that it is my personal foible, since I've certainly heard other Americans express it differently.

  36. No one has mentioned that in (BrE) one would say "call me ON nnn-nnn" whereas in (AmE) one would say "call me AT nnn-nnnn" I'm an American living in England and quite commonly hear a string of three numbers stated as "treble" n.

  37. It's amazing how times have changed. I grew up (in the late 70s) saying 'nought' for what people now say as zero or 'oh'. I'm looked upon as somewhat quaint, I think! However, everyone seems to understand me.

    I'm with the double/triple/treble brigade for numbers. But if there were four of a numeral, I'd be more likely to say 'double four double four' than quadruple.

    However, when it comes to the emergency number in NZ, it's always said 'one one one', not 'triple one'.

  38. Someone gave me their number tonight with triple one in it. The treble/triple thing is definitely individual--I wouldn't be surprised if there are age-related divisions, with treble being older, though the triple sayer tonight was no spring chicken. (I.e. older than me!)

  39. AmE here, and I agree with Andyman- my phone number does not have letters in it, so it's "zero" instead of "oh". Also, especially at the beginning of a number sequence, using "oh" to mean zero can sometimes sound like one is using "oh" as an interjectory word, not a number, as in, "oh, it's just yada yada yada..." Then by the time you realize that "oh" was actually the first number in the sequence, you've missed the next few numbers and have to ask the person to please repeat him-/her-self.

  40. AmE here. I've just realized that I've heard advertisements with the zip code nine double-oh seven eight and never thought twice about it. Probably would repeat it the same way if asked. However, my former zip code was always oh eight oh oh two. I don't know whether this is a California vs NJ thing, personal preference, or that the double oh occurs in a different part of the zip code, or that there is another oh at the beginning.

    I would never use doubles in phone numbers and don't remember ever hearing such. I would use hundred or thousand in phone numbers if the zeros occur at the end of a group (zip code, exchange, or last four digits). I think I might still group the last four digits into pairs of two (fifty-two seventy) sometimes as a left over of how it was done in Russia.

    I have no problem with using doubles when spelling out words (except double-u of course), but I don't say triple-double-u in web addresses.

  41. Roger Hughes30 May, 2013 19:28

    Many years late, but as Lynne has just brought this post up again:

    In Belgian French (and note that not all francophone Belgians are Walloons) 70 is septante and 90 is nonante; these are used in all registers (my son's birth certificates says he wa born in "mille neuf cent nonante huit". Octante or huitante are not used as they are in Switzerland. Telephone numbers are generally read out in pairs as in France, with leading triplets where there's an odd number of digits, and split on the dialling code/number boundary (so patterns are either 2/3-2-2 in the cities and 3/2-2-2 in the sticks, and 2-2/2-2-2 for mobiles), thus zéro deux, deux-cents-nonante-neuf, onze onze should get you the European Commission offices in Brussels. Belgian Dutch appears to follow the same patterns, which is more disconcerting since the spoken forms of two-digit numbers put the digits in the reverse order of what you have to dial (cf. "one and twenty"), so nul twee, tweehonderd eenentachtig, eenenzestig elf should get you 02/281.61.11 for the Council switchboard but if you're transcribing it it sounds like "oh two, two hundred one and eighty, one and sixty, eleven".

    Back in the UK, I think I only use "double" when it is the leading or final pair of a quartet of the final pair of a triad. My childhood phone number was 3446 which was always "three four four six" (which also led to some problems with learning to count for me and all my siblings...). Round numbers and numbers with another significance have largely been reserved for business use at a premium cost, and they may be spoken as exceptional forms if familiar from elsewhere (e.g. XXX 1066 is very likely to be "... ten sixty-six" and be the number for "Hastings Taxis" anywhere other than Hastings).


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