A PERSONAL RANT ABOUT PHONE NUMBERS

The ridiculous way some companies present them, how this confuses ordinary people, the latest crazy idea it has led to and what I think should really happen

The problem

An ordinary geographic British telephone number consists of two parts:

It is not usually necessary to dial the area code if you are calling from a number on the same one.

However, a great many people and companies, especially in areas where telephone numbers have been changed significantly since 1994, seem to be unaware of where the code ends and the number begins. This leads to numbers being incorrectly presented, which is a self-compounding problem. The rules on how to present your telephone number are actually fairly simple, but many seem not to understand them. Note that I do not consider the majority change of 1994-5, where a 1 was inserted into area codes, to be a significant change.

The rules

Occasionally you will see odd spacings within the local number – these are not wrong, as long as the area code is kept on its own. The 3-4 and 4-4 splits, at least in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and London have a lot to do with the fact that these were “Director” cities where the telephone number used to have an exchange name of which you dialled the first three letters (using a layout nearly the same as the one on modern mobile phones) and the four digits – e.g. VINcent 1212, where VIN translates to 846. (This was the old equivalent of a “Drama” number – 846 was TIM, the speaking clock!)

Good and bad examples

The areas affected most are the ones where numbers changed during 1994-5 and more recently – Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Bristol, Reading, London, Southampton, Portsmouth, Coventry, Cardiff and the whole of Northern Ireland. Some examples – these are going to appear to be “naming and shaming” - are given below. However, here is the problem with incorrectly presenting a telephone number:

It is fairly common, though incorrect, to present a London telephone number like this: (0207) 946 0726. This implies all of the following points, incorrectly:

In fact, if you were to try calling that number from another beginning 0207, there would be silence, then a message telling you that the number is incomplete, or something very similar.

The correct way is to present it like this: (020) 7946 0726. If you were to try dialling 7946 0726 from another London number, you would actually be told fairly quickly that the number is not in service – this is because it is what is called a “Drama” number – you may have seen these in depictions of London on TV and in films. However, it is the closest thing we have to a real number that is not actually one.

One good effect of longer numbers is that numbers can be brought in starting with a new digit. However, this gets misreported in the press - “0203 to be third telephone code” in London's Evening Standard for example. Also, if people still think of Sheffield incorrectly as 01142, and numbers beginning with a new digit appear, this will cause dialling errors. In fact, it did happen when Sheffield numbers beginning 3 were allocated to a hospital and wrong number calls to 23x xxxx became more common when people dialled 01142 instead of the correct 0114, or even omitting it locally.

An inconsistent example where they've got it right once out of three: Wortley Cottage Guest House. The actual page body has the number correctly spaced once and incorrectly spaced once, but the title field in the header has it incorrectly spaced too – look at the title of your web browser window when viewing. Confirmed still incorrect 31 January 2017.

Two wrong presentations: Fortis Properties. Retrieved 18 October 2012, replacing a previous page with four errors but one correct number. Confirmed still incorrect 31 January 2017.

Wrongly spaced: Wingspan Productions – a previous page had more than one number incorrectly spaced, so a slight improvement. Also, and much less excusable: Ballicom International product page - two incorrectly spaced Coventry numbers, one beginning 77, so not ever a 6-digit number. Seen 31 January 2017.

Highly inconsistent: One Community. Connect with us, at the bottom, spaces the main number correctly, but main list has all incorrect spacing. At least there are no missing digits now. New layout seen on 31 January 2017.

Inconsistent: East London Waste Authority. Councils' numbers are all correctly spaced, but the authority's own number is incorrectly spaced. Retrieved 12 December 2014, still inconsistent on 31 January 2017.

These are by no means the only examples – plenty more can easily be found. In general, the local councils get it right, though there may be the odd mistake among them. Suffice it to say that, with such examples, the public get confused as to what the area code actually is.

(The webmasters of the above sites are welcome to tell me they've fixed the problem and will find themselves being replaced by another example if they do.)

Inexcusable

The inexcusable are the major directories – the Yellow Pages, Thomson and even BT's Phone Book. All seem quite happy to take adverts where the number is incorrectly spaced, or even incorrectly bracketed. If they rejected them, it would go some way towards educating people as to the correct presentation.

Doesn't everyone dial in full nowadays?

From mobiles they would need to, but from ordinary lines it is not necessary, and I would think that most people realise this. For those that don't, they could save time by dropping the area code, if they actually knew what it was. The incorrect presentation of numbers confuses people, so that they don't know this time-saving step. Besides, full dialling is not necessarily that helpful, as the Sheffield example showed.

The latest crazy idea and what I think should happen instead

The latest crazy idea is to release numbers beginning 0 and 1 in about 70 areas, meaning that local dialling will have to be abolished in those areas. This started in Bournemouth, with Aberdeen, Bradford, Brighton, Middlesbrough and Milton Keynes also now affected. It is a way to eventually get rid of local dialling nationally, and to remove geographic significance in the numbers themselves. I maintain that this is a bad thing. It would be far better to expand the existing 8-digit areas, or perhaps the 7-digit ones, to take in some of the areas facing number shortage. There is plenty of spare capacity in most of them. Where this would not make sense, four more 02x codes remain available. Perhaps freeing up some 01xxx codes in a strategic fashion would allow for more 7 or 8 digit areas – this would mean the rules above would change, but it would be far better than destroying the link between telephone numbers and areas.

On the other hand, if we did break the link, then many more currently unused numbers would be available - we should retain the 01, 02 and 03 ranges for ordinary numbers of course (and 04 perhaps, if needed). It would take some getting used to, and also make it harder to tell when a spoof caller ID is presented (01783, for example, is not a real area code - 0783 used to be Sunderland, but that was incorporated into 091, later 0191) but maybe, if effective action was taken against junk callers, this would be less of an issue. My next personal rant will probably be about this.

What about non-geographic numbers?

These numbers do not have area codes in the proper sense and you have to dial in full. For 03, 08 and 09 numbers, a 4-3-4 presentation is normal. For 05 numbers, except 0500, a 3-4-4 presentation is normal. For 07 numbers, a 5-6 presentation is normal. (Note that on the Isle of Man, mobile numbers also work as though the first five digits were an area code.)