Ask Simon Mirin of Adelphi how he would tell someone his phone number, and he'll reply:
When leaving a message, most people would state their phone numbers the same way--three digits spoken as a unit, then a distinct break, then the last four digits spoken as a unit.
But many people don't. There's the rub. And it's rubbing Si the wrong way.
He asks: why do so many people give their phone numbers as seven digits all in a clump, without a pause, without a breath, without a trace of inflection?
Just as hard on his ears, says Si, are other "aberrant" methods. Like 2 digits-pause-5 digits. Like 3 digits-pause-one digit-pause-3 digits. Like 1-2-4. Like 3-2-2.
"I'm a mathematician," says Si, "but I still can't understand it. I just can't cope with it."
It may be a reflection of the evil rather than the the root of it, but I point the first finger at the telephone company.
Have you ever had the misfortune to dial a number that's been changed? You reach a tinny, recorded female voice that sounds as if it's doing 5-to-20 inside a waterlogged can of Coca-Cola. Give Si's number to this soul of computerese, and it would come out:
You could die of boredom. And of puzzlement. The phone company's always urging us to leave precise messages, rendered with precise rhythm and inflection. Why doesn't Ma Bell practice what she preaches?
The second finger gets pointed at the military.
Ever dial the wrong number at Fort Belvoir or Fort Meade? They'll never say: "The correct number is XYZ-XXXX." Instead, it'll be: "Call ZXXXX."
"Huh?" you say, as you think, "Doesn't this guy know that five-digit numbers went out in the 1930s?"
The explanation, of course, is that every number at Fort Anywhere has the same first two digits, and Mr. ZXXXX is assuming you know that. Still, this way lies madness--and a serious 2-5 habit when it comes time for military personnel to make a civilian phone call.
The third finger gets pointed at the wise guys. Life in the digital slow lane isn't spicy enough for them. So if they were leaving a message, they'd say, cheerily: "one-(pause)-twenty-three(pause)- forty-five(pause)- sixty-seven."
Real cute. And real incomprehensible. Said quickly, some combinations of numbers can sound exactly like others. If speaking in double-digitese were an improvement, wouldn't air traffic controllers have jumped in with two feet long ago?
Where do I come down in all this? I'm afraid I'm a confirmed 3-2-2 man, Si. It's born of experience, most of it bitter.
I split the final four digits into a pair of twos, because many people taking down my phone number begin to get behind by the time the fifth digit rolls past. I pause there to give them a chance to catch up.