P is not for telephone

Friday, 8 August 2008

There’s a trend towards indicating contact details by a single letter. You see this on business cards, email signatures and letterheads:

T (01) 234 5678 – F (01) 234 5678 – E bob@boztangle.com

It looks quite nice and clean, especially in a vertical format on a screen as the single letters all line up in nice columns. And it’s pretty obvious what the letters stand for if they stick to the obvious words: telephone, fax, mobile, email. But too often people try to be clever and end up creating confusion. Here are some examples.

P (09) 876 5432

P is meant to stand for “phone”. This is a real howler; it reminds me of the Simpsons episode that mentioned a horror movie called “P is for Psycho”. P is obviously not a natural abbreviation of “phone” or “psycho” because these words don’t sound as if they begin with P. And “phone” is already an abbreviation. For telephone. Which begins with T.

D (02) 468 1357

D stands for “direct”. In this case, there’s probably a T that gives the number of the company reception desk. But wait a minute. This is Bob’s business card, so when I see a T, I expect it to be Bob’s phone number. His direct phone number. The number of the reception desk is a secondary number, and we must face the fact that there’s no clear single-letter abbreviation for this.

C (021) 468 1357

C stands, of course, for “cellphone”. That’s “of course” only if you live in the USA or some other country where mobile phones are called cellphones. I think that M for mobile is more universal than C for cell, as well as being more descriptive. I’ll bet that most people who call their phone a cellphone don’t know why it’s called this.

DDI (02) 468 1357

This stands for Direct Dial In. You also sometimes see DID for Direct Inward Dial. This is pretty common in New Zealand — it’s a quaint reminder of a simpler time, when most companies had only a few incoming phone numbers and having a direct line was a big deal; of course this concept required its own special abbreviation. Nowadays I think we can just stick with T for telephone.

So here’s a handy guide to the single-letter abbreviations you can safely use for your English-language contact details.

T Telephone — the person’s phone number. This is the direct number if there is one, otherwise the general reception number.

M Mobile — the person’s mobile phone number.

F Fax — the person’s fax number. (Some people like to write “FAX” instead of “fax” for some reason, but I’m sure you’re not one of these people.)

E Email — the person’s email address.

W Web — typically the general company website. Of course you should leave off the http:// from the website. But then you knew that already.

Anything else is going to need more than just a single letter. For consistency in these cases, just spell everything out rather than have funky single-letter abbreviations for some details but not others.

Some of these contact details don’t really need any indicator at all: bob@boztangle.com is obviously an email address. Mobile phone numbers are often distinguishable by the number of digits, but this only works for people who are familiar with that country’s numbering plan. (Even then it doesn’t always work: Hong Kong has no area codes and uses eight digits for all phone numbers, fixed and mobile. Then again, in my experience nobody used fixed line phones in Hong Kong anyway.) Given that, if there’s only a fixed line or a mobile or both, and also maybe an email and a website, you can just give them unadorned:

(09) 234 5678 – ( 021) 234 5678 – bob@boztangle.com – www.boztangle.com

Now that’s clean and elegant. But more importantly, it’s clear. Adding “P” would just confuse the matter.


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  1. Great posting! I’ve seen these mistakes too often on too many emails. Thank you for posting proper e-abbreviations for everyone to see.

    BTW: You can call me anytime to speak about this:

    P (08)344-0770

  2. Thank you so much. English is not my native, so working with foreign partners I’ve often been confused by those letters in the business cards. Now it’s really clear!

  3. I would not recommend using “m” for mobile. Too many people will think “m” for mail. Of course “mail” can be associated with postal mail or e-mail. I think the letters “t” or “c” work better for phones. And use “e” for e-mail.

  4. Good point. In most cases, context makes it obvious: “M 0123 456 789” is obviously not an email address. As I say, “T” is not so good for a mobile phone because it doesn’t indicate that the phone is mobile, and “C” is a bit USA-centric. If in doubt — spell it out.

  5. Nice post. Congratulations!

  6. Another issue with using M is that some use it to indicate the Main line of a company vs. a direct line. I’ve also seen some use V for voice line but aren’t they all voice lines except the Fax?

    If you have a land line, a fax line and a mobile line would you use “T”, “F” and M respectively?

  7. @henry, yes I would. T M F E and W are the basics and should normally cause no confusion for the reasons I give above. If you’re worried about confusing people, just spell it out.

  8. OMG you cannot believe how I racked my brain trying to figure out the best way to do T and F.
    What a dork!!! Okay, so I decided to Google it! Thank you so much. I spoke to 3 different people yesterday at lunch and nobody came up with T for the office number. UNBELIEVABLE! If they had it would have clicked!!
    So here’s and abbreviation: K.I.S.S.!!!
    Thank you again!!

  9. thank you !!!
    when i got an email i was like D- what does thats stand for ?

  10. Robert / Poland

    Hi, what I often see on bus. cards is:

  11. Hi,
    what I often see on bus. cards is:

  12. Our email signature uses D and M. I don’t know why, but for some reason I always thought the M was for “Main,” the general office number. I saw T on an email today and investigated. Now I have D and T in my email signature. Thank you for this!

  13. @davis, I’m sure there are. I suppose many people, including the person in question, don’t use them much any more.

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